20 April 2010

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Realizing Kartini’s dreams

In Indonesia, April 21 is celebrated throughout the archipelago as Kartini Day, a day to commemorate the birth of Indonesian national heroine, Raden Adjeng Kartini.
Kartini is widely acknowledged as a leading figure in the history of the Indonesian struggle for gender equality. Kartini was a 19th century Javanese woman who overcame the confinement of her solitude in seclusion as a high-born woman by writing to a number of Dutch women, including feminist Stella Zeehandelaar, to whom she poured out her dreams of a world where women could be educated and autonomous. Kartini was born into an aristocratic family in Java in 1879. She was forced into a polygamous marriage and died in childbirth at the age of just 25.
During her lifetime, Kartini struggled to liberate her countrywomen from the chains of tradition and patriarchal values, including polygamy and the practice of secluding girls after the onset of puberty. Kartini’s private letters compiled in a book entitled Door Duisternis tot Licht (Out of Dark Comes Light) first published in Dutch in 1911 contained many philosophical understandings of her dreams about “being a woman”, her passionate feeling about intellectual development as well as her will to overcome male-dominated society.
Indonesian women have now moved away from the family boundaries that were once imposed upon them and enjoy the autonomy that Kartini dreamed of a century ago. Noticeably after the reform era, the socio-economic status and freedom of expression among Indonesian women have increased remarkably.

More and more Indonesian women are entering higher education, earning their own income and have the autonomy to choose where they would like to be enrolled for higher education or employment. They also have the independence to choose their own spouse with parental agreement or delay entry into marriage and family life.
As for some Indonesian women who have the luxury of combining work and family, many are pursuing their career as professionals, bureaucrats, politicians, lecturers, teachers, researchers as well as entrepreneurs.
Indonesian women have now come a long way, not only do they contribute to the labor force, they increasingly also determine policies at the highest levels of both government and the private sector.    
Indonesia has had Megawati Soekarnoputri as its first woman president. At present, women occupy 12.5 percent of ministerial or ministerial-equivalent positions. There are five women in the current 40-member Cabinet of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Those women ministers are Mari E. Pangestu (Trade Minister), Sri Mulyani Indrawati (Finance Minister), Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih (Health Minister), Linda Amalia Sari Gumelar (Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister), and Armida S. Alisjahbana (National Development Planning Minister).
In the past, there were two ministerial positions reserved for women, the Women’s Empowerment Minister and for Social Services Minister. In the lower levels of government, Indonesia has also exceptional female vice-governors, regents, mayors as well as director generals and deputy ministers of governmental institutions.
Ratu Atut Chosiyah was the first female governor in Indonesia and came to office in 2007. Women’s skillful leadership has also been proven by corporate women, such as Karen Agustiawan, the first woman president director of state-owned oil company Pertamina.  Indonesia has also leading women entrepreneurs, lawyers, bankers, business executives, artists, and activists whose roles are to keep improving Indonesian society.
Despite the remarkable progress of Indonesian women, significant problems, some of which were faced by Kartini, persist. Women’s social position is still subordinate, maternal mortality remains high, and polygamy practices still exist.
Furthermore, lots of women are still trapped by poverty, discrimination, unemployment, illiteracy, intimidation and violence. They are far less likely than men to be politically active and are poorly represented in policy and decision making. Women have to work harder than men to secure their livelihoods.
Those problems are indeed significantly inherent in the state system and cultural structure due to typical stereotype differentiating women and men, cultural and traditional values disrespecting women, and religious beliefs entrenching patriarchy.
Thus, Indonesian women still have a long way to go to improve the existing situation particularly related to education, employment opportunities and their involvement in decision-making both in the household and wider society.
The number of women in top decision-making positions may still be small, but these women are blazing a path for their daughters, who can look forward to a brighter future.
As aspired by Kartini to bring women out of the darkness into light, it is hoped that more and more Indonesian women realize her dreams and have power over their rights and privileges.

Linda K Wardani, The writer is a PhD candidate at the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, Australian National University.

Opini The Jakarta Post 21 April 2010