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  • Fiadhira Rasyah

Remembrance of Early Feminism Through Kartini’s Letters “Door Duisternist tot Licht”

Raden Adjeng Kartini—most Indonesians are surely familiar with her. She is one of the Indonesian women who fought for equality and opportunities for Indonesian girls to receive a good education. She believed that knowledge was the key to everything. However, apart from her contribution to this societal change, her struggles are embodied and preserved in a tangible form that we can aesthetically enjoy. We can appreciate her impact by reading her letters, which epitomize her thoughts. These are historical pieces of evidence that we should pay attention.


"Door Duisternis tot Licht," which translates to "Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang," is a collection of letters by Kartini and was published in 1911. The letters were first published in Dutch, and in 1922, Balai Pustaka published them in Indonesian. Kartini’s collection of letters encompasses her thoughts on the social conditions of that time, particularly inequality in gender and the sociopolitical situation of pribumi (native Indonesian) women. Most of her letters convey grievances and complaints towards Javanese culture, which was seen as an obstacle to women’s freedom and progress in life. She sought freedom for women to seek knowledge and education, which was prohibited at that time. Kartini wrote a lot about her ideas and aspirations, which include self-education, self-confidence, and self-empowerment. All the aforementioned topics were written to encompass humanitarianism, which indulges in equality, and nationalism in Indonesia. A fight for freedom, autonomy, and equality across a broader spectrum.

“JAPARA, 25 Mei 1899. (I.) Ik heb zóó verlangd kennis te maken met een "modern meisje", het fiere, zelfstandige meisje, dat zoo ten volle mijne sympathie heeft, dat met vluggen, flinken tred haar weg door 't leven gaat, vroolijk en opgeruimd, vol geestdrift en warm gevoel, arbeidend niet voor eigen heil en geluk alleen, doch ook zich gevend aan de groote Maatschappij, werkend tot het heil van vele medemenschen. Ik gloei van geestdrift voor den nieuwen tijd en ja, ik kan wel zeggen, dat wat denken en voelen betreft, ik den Indischen tijd niet meeleef, doch geheel die mijner vooruitstrevende blanke zusters in het verre Westen. “ (p.14)

English translation: "JAPARA, May 25, 1899. (I.) I have longed to meet a "modern girl" so much, the proud, independent girl who has my utmost sympathy, who confidently strides through life, cheerful and upbeat, full of enthusiasm and warm emotions, working not only for her own well-being and happiness but also dedicating herself to the greater society, working for the benefit of many fellow human beings. I am filled with enthusiasm for the new era, and yes, I can truly say that in terms of thoughts and feelings, I do not live in the Indische era, but rather completely in sync with my progressive sisters in the far West." (p.14)

This fragment above portrays the situation during that time. Kartini described the suffering of Javanese women as due to cultural restrictions, such as being unable to freely attend school, being secluded, being married off to unfamiliar men, and being expected to tolerate polygamy. In light of those cultural restrictions, she expressed in her writing that being a European woman was considered more advantageous due to the freedom they enjoyed, along with the Western gender ideology and liberalism that aligned with her idea of a modern woman.

“'t Waren de stemmen niet alleen, die van buiten, van het beschaafde, het herboren Europa tot me doordrongen, die me naar verandering der nu bestaande toestanden deden verlangen. Reeds in mijne kinderjaren, toen het woord "emancipatie" nog geen klank, nog geen betekenis voor mijne ooren had, en geschriften, en werken, die het daarover hadden, ver buiten mijn bereik waren, ontwaakte in mij een verlangen, dat gaandeweg grooter en grooter werd: het verlangen naar vrijheid en onafhankelijkheid, zelfstandigheid. Toestanden in mijne directe en indirecte omgeving, die mijn hart braken, en deden schreien van nameloos verdriet, riepen het wakker.” ( p. 15)

English translation: "It was not just the voices from outside, from civilized, reborn Europe, that reached me and made me yearn for a change in the existing conditions. Even in my childhood, when the word 'emancipation' had no sound, no meaning to my ears, and writings and works discussing it were far beyond my reach, a desire awakened within me, gradually growing bigger and bigger: the desire for freedom and independence, self-sufficiency. Circumstances in my direct and indirect surroundings, which shattered my heart and made me weep with nameless sorrow, awakened it." (p. 15) 

From this fragment above, her inner reflections and personal experience highlight the factors that influenced her desire for change and her longing for independence and freedom. The excerpt also mentions that the speaker's surroundings, both directly and indirectly, had a profound impact on Kartini. Overall, the passages chosen above convey multiple factors that are the main reason behind Kartini’s main motivation to start the fight. Once again, these are historical pieces of evidence that we should pay attention to. Not only is Kartini an icon of emancipation, but she also embodied her thought exquisitely in the form of art.

Although we now live in modern Indonesia, patriarchal norms and hierarchy in our society have not completely dissolved. While we have obtained our rights to access education and hold eligible positions in the workplace, we are aware that patriarchal norms and values are still deeply ingrained in our culture today. So, why hasn't it faded away over time? This is because there are numerous factors contributing to their persisting existence, including traditional beliefs, the influence of capitalism, which often still objectifies women, and savage violations of the female body in the media or heck, in real life, among other things. Also, an indication of its persistence is that domestic violence rates remain high and early marriage is still prevalent in Indonesia.

Indonesian women continue to face marginalization as a result of prevailing patriarchal norms and hierarchical structures. Once again, the solution lies in making necessary  adjustments, challenging existing norms, and asserting our fundamental rights as women and human beings. However, change is not an instant process. It is important to remember that every battle has an outcome, and even in the darkest times, there is always hope for a brighter future. As Kartini said, "Door Duisternist tot licht". 

We are in this together.


The Nusantara Bulletin. 


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