Image - Raden Ajeng Kartini with her parents, sisters, and brothers, circa 1890 - 1904. [from]
So many Indonesians already know how Kartini’s ideas made known and how it got famous. We know why Kartini was what we could call feminist, and why she was revolutionary in her time. And we know she established a school to improve education for women.
But how did Kartini start exchanging letters with Dutch women?
It all started in 1899 when she turned 20. A year before, she just finished her "masa pingitan", a period in which Javanese noblewomen were confined in their houses to be taught and tutored various “arts to be a lady” such as preparing them for marriage and chores as a wife, sometimes include ‘beauty classes’.
Kartini, a bookworm at her finest, read De Locomotief, a Semarang newspaper she read routinely. Besides catching up with the news, she was also known to spend on books, one of them being De Hollandsche Lelie, a Dutch magazine for women she subscribed to. Started as a reader, she began sending some of her writings to the magazine, which got published.
Later on she put a little column ‘advertising’ herself looking for a penpal. On an issue dated March 15, 1899, she wrote that “Raden Ajeng Kartini, the daughter of the regent of Jepara, wanting to meet a Dutch woman whose age is about the same as mine to have some correspondence with me.” In her column, she also stated that the woman whom she would want to exchange letters with had to be aware of ongoing issues, such as the spread of democracy whose wave was hitting across the European continent, and was interested in the discourse related to modernism.
In Kartini: Sebuah Biografi, authoress Sitisoemandari Soeroto said Kartini was curious about women’s movements in Europe, and wanted to know whether “those are exactly what they are in the magazines and books I read.” A Dutch woman born to a Jewish family in Amsterdam, Estelle Zeehandellar whom Kartini later called Stella, responded her letter. Stella was five years older than Kartini.
In her first letter for Stella, Kartini wrote about her pingitan, saying she would fight for her freedom to be independent that she would not have to rely on another person—-let alone a marriage.
"Aku mau maju, maju terus! Bukan pesta-pesta atau memburu kesenangan yang kuinginkan, tetapi tujuanku adalah adalah kemerdekaan. Aku mau merdeka, mau berdiri sendiri, agar tidak perlu tergantung pada orang lain, agar tidak terpaksa harus kawin…"
— I will keep moving forward. It’s not leisure or parties that I desire, but freedom. I want to be free, I want to be independent so that I won’t need to rely on other people, so that I don’t need to be forced to get married…
She also talked about the books she read with Stella. Besides Douwes Dekker (Multatuli)’s Max Havelaar, she also discussed Hilda van Suylenburg, a book written by Goekoop-de Jong proclaimed as a feminist novel which caused sensation in the Dutch society because it tells about a woman who rebelled against conservatism.
Besides telling about her life as a Javanese princess, Kartini also wrote about her thoughts regarding tradition, religion, even social-politics. In her letter to J.H. Abendanon, the wife of Ministry of Culture, she raised an honest question about European colonialism—-"Are you aware that among the beautiful, cultured inventions in Madame’s Dutch society, there are things which I don’t think belong in what we call civilization."
It was after Kartini’s death that Mrs. Abendanon collected the letters she sent to her colleagues, including the ones for Stella. The book was first published in 1911, titled Door Duisternis tot Licht.