This post is part of the 2013 Feminist Reads Challenge. To learn more about the challenge or join in, click here

by Dee Putri

I was born on April 21st. Here in Indonesia, that’s Hari Kartini (Kartini’s Day),  a celebration of the day Kartini was born. Who is Kartini? Her full name is Raden Ajeng Kartini, and we celebrate her because she is a heroine who fought for  woman to be educated and to be able to go to school.

My birthday means that Kartini is very important in my life. Since a kid, I was expected to be ‘someone’–to do something big, just like she did. I’ve been trying! When I was in elementary school and I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up,  my sister said  that I should be a writer, just like Kartini was, and here I am. But  for some reason, I never read her book, Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang (Out of Dark Comes Light). [Ed note: The English version of this book is not directly translated and is somewhat unfortunately titled Letters of a Javanese Princess.]

Do you believe in destiny? Well, I do. When I finally read the book this month, I found that Kartini starting writing  her letters when she was in  her early twenties, just like I am now. The book is a collection of letters that Kartini wrote to her friends when she was just around my age. Her ideas stuck in my head. How could she become that mature at this age and at that time, the late 1800s? How did she become passionate enough to succeed in getting education for women?

Girls weren’t going to school in Kartini’s era. Luckily, her father was concerned about her education, and supported her hobbies—reading books and writing. But even so, she only went to school until she was 12 years old. From then on, Kartini was secluded at home because that was what was expected for noble girls; she wasn’t allowed to leave home, which depressed her terribly. While  she was still in school, her teacher asked her if she would ever go to Netherlands. The question broke her heart: “Don’t ask me if I want to,” she wrote, “but can I?” She felt that the question was so cruel, like “serving  delicious food to hungry people who can’t eat it.”

These are some of my favorite excerpts from her letters, about education and equality and girls’ rights:

“A girl whose mind and knowledge have been expanded will no longer able to live in a world of her ancestors. She entered the cage after being taught to fly.”

 “My dear, with your lovely and daring heart, also your rich knowledge, please give us your hand. Lift us out of this hole of suffering and misery, where we were pushed by the interests of men. Please help us to eradicate selfishness of men that trampling women. But women don’t consider it as injustice again because it happens all the time and they only can resignation. Men are the source of suffering women. I’m still young, but I’m not blind or deaf. I can see and listen. Even too much. It makes me sick, so that makes me want to against the cruel cultural habit for women and kids. I feel hopeless. I can’t do it alone.”

But then I understand why men are so egoist. Things that they learn since a kid from their mother, they taught that women are inferior. I often heard my mom, my aunties, and families said, “She is just a girl, just a girl.” It upset me. “Women are nothing, they were made for men, for fun. Men could do whatever they want,” I could hear the devil mock me. “NO! We are human, just like men. Give me permission to prove it. Please let me. I’ll show you that I’m a human. Just like men.”

The emancipation movement was just beginning when Kartini wrote her letters.  One of the movement’s supporters, JH Abendanon, wanted to help Kartini to make her dream come true, offering her  an opportunity to go to school again and get a teaching degree. But there were many obstacles, and unfortunately she had to turn it down. J.H. Abendanon advised her to start teaching immediately, even without a certificate, and she did.  Before she married, Kartini and her sister, Roekmini, taught several young girls at their house–yes, they built a school! They taught reading, writing, sewing, cooking, and other skills. After she married, she moved to Rembang and continue her teaching, including to her step children. Tragically, she passed away at age 25, four days after giving birth to her son.

Reading this book make me realize that we should all read as much as we can. Then I realized why some of us feel ‘different.’ I think when you read a lot, you have a more complete view of life and the world, especially when you also learn about different cultures. You learn to see things from different angles and perspectives. Her letters also reassured me that there will always be someone there to support you. When you love something, you’ll find your people. You’ll change the world. You only have to be passionate enough about it. And be patient–maybe now you can’t see the impact. But later, you’ll see. And we’ll all be really proud to have you!