Door Duisternis tot Licht: Letters of Javanese Princess

My friends and I when we were in Kindergarten. We dressed up in kebaya to celebrate Kartini's Day.
My friends and I when we were in Kindergarten. We dressed up in kebaya to celebrate Kartini’s Day.

“I have been longing to make the acquaintance of a modern girl, that proud independent girl who has all my sympathy! She who, happy and self reliant, lightly and alertly steps her way through life, full of enthusiasm and warm feelings; working not only for her own well-being and happiness, but for the greater good of humanity as a whole.”

-RA. Kartini

Been wanting to post a story about RA Kartini here on my blog. And today I think it’s the right time to publish this post, as today, on the 21st of April, we Indonesians commemorate the date as “The Day of Kartini”. I’ve read some books that explain many things about her, her spirit, her family and everything in between. This woman, Raden Adjeng Kartini was a prominent Javanese heroine.  She was known as a pioneer in the area of human rights for native Indonesians.
She was a princess from the Island in Java. born on April 21, 1879.  When Kartini was born, Java was still part of the Dutch colonies, the Dutch East Indies.  Her father was the mayor; her mother was his ‘first’ wife. Yes, Polygamy was still a common practice among the nobility, and Kartini experienced first-hand the conflicts and sufferings that arise from this practice.  She was an active person and had a big dream to help Indonesian women to reach their dreams, and the most importantly is to get a proper education. She was lucky to get allowed to study in school until the age of 12, she was allowed to study because she came from an aristocratic family. But it didn’t make her feel superior to her peers, she was so humble and always share her knowledges to all of her friends.

When she was 12, she was pulled from school and ‘secluded’ at home. This was another common practice among nobility to prepare young girls for marriage. But it didn’t make her stop dreaming, she continued to educate herself on her own. She had some penpals in Holland, in her letters,  she expressed her hopes for support from overseas. In her correspondence with Estell “Stella” Zeehandelaar, R.A. Kartini expressed her desire to be like a European youth. She depicted the sufferings of Javanese women fettered by tradition, unable to study, secluded, and who must be prepared to participate in polygamous marriages with men they don’t know.

She actually against the practice of polygamy, but she worshipped her father, so, when her parents arranged her marriage to a man who already had three wives, yes, three wives, she accepted and was married  on November 12, 1903.  Her husband, a liberal, not only continued to allow her to write to her friends, but also assisted her in establishing the first primary school for women in Indonesia.  It was located in her father’s house and children and young women were provided with a basic education. Her first journey into the outside world was to accompany her parents to the festivities held in honour of the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina.

However, her enthusiasm at educating Indonesian girls was to be short-lived.  Kartini’s only son was born on September 13, 1904, and a few days later on September 17, 1904, Kartini died of complications of birth at age 25, but her spirit in Indonesian women’s soul will never die. And we definitely will always remember her as one of the most inspiring Indonesian women.

And after her death, Mr. J. H. Abendanon decided to collect all of her letters—a 106 of letters and published them in 1911 in the Hague under the title, “Door Duisternis tot Licht,” (from Darkness into Light). And in 1922, the first Indonesian translation of her letters were published, translated by Indonesian students who were attending Dutch University under the title: “Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang”.

I haven’t finished reading those letters, but here’s a few of her penpals in Holland: Nellie van Kool, Zeehandelaar, and Mr. J.H. Abendanon (the Minister of  Culture, Religion and Industry in the Dutch East Indies).

She’s one of my many role models since I was a kid. Her spirit, her hopes, dreams, and her ability to speak foreign language fluently (especially Dutch; the language that I wish I could speak fluently) has inspire and influence me and other Indonesian women.

I can feel her burning spirit on those letters she wrote to her Dutch friends. It teachs me to be a strong-independent woman, to be a woman who never be afraid to speak her mind and to inspire other women in all possible ways.

Usually on Kartini’s Day, women and girls wear traditional clothing (kebaya) to symbolize their unity and participate in costume contests. I remember when I was in Kindergarten till High School I always participated on this contest. I woke up early in the morning, went to salon and dressed up in Kebaya. Went to school and joined the parade. I won the contest for 3 or 4 times, I couldn’t exactly remember. And I got some cups from those contests 😀 Oh, I miss the old days!

So, happy Kartini’s Day to all Indonesian women. Always fight for what you think is right! Let’s continue her spirit, be a woman who can inspire one another and we also should be well-educated, as well as men.

(Sources: some books I’ve read while in Elementary school, Junior High School and Senior High School, some stories my Mom told me during my chilhood (she is a good and accurate story-teller), and some articles I’ve read recently related to Kartini’s letters.)


With love,


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