Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Selamat Hari Kartini!

Quick Bahasa Indonesia lesson: “Hari” means “day.” So obviously, “Hari Kartini” means “Kartini Day.”

“Hari ini” literally means “this day” and means “today.” This all reminds me of the sign that was hanging up in the police station where I sat for three hours after my purse was stolen in March. In an uncommon display of ornamentation, someone had painted the words, “Hari ini lebih baik dari kemarin” on the wall, which means “Today is better than yesterday.” Having just had all of my possessions ripped from my grasp, I was unable to embrace the spirit behind the sentiment. And I have to wonder how many people who walk through the doors of that police station really think that day is in fact an improvement over the day before, when they were not entering the lair of Indonesia’s Finest.

Anyway, Kartini Day celebrates an Indonesian woman who spent her short life pushing for education for women. Born in 1879, she was allowed to go to school until she was 12. After that, she was kept in her home to prepare for marriage, but she continued to teach herself. She had many Dutch pen pals and eventually begged to be allowed to teach in Jakarta. She argued against traditional religious practices (many still in place today). For example, she didn’t believe people should have to memorize the Koran without having to understand its meaning. After a few years, she was finally allowed to go to Jakarta, but she then turned the offer down because she had decided to get married and continuing living in her hometown. She hoped she and her husband would together be able to organize schools for young women, but she died at 25.

I know women’s rights in Indonesia is something completely different than women’s rights in America, but there’s a sort of strange sort of oxymoronic feminism that exists in many women I’ve met here. As one of my teachers said last week, “I will complete my master’s degree and become a professor before having my arranged marriage and raising as many children as possible. I hope I have many sons.”

For some reason, one of my unattached Indonesian friends had a near life crisis and spent a week surveying women and asking, “Would you rather be divorced or an old maid?” I saw one woman shudder and say, “Both of those would be terrible.” My friend nodded solemnly.

Then there’s the jilbab. During orientation, an Indonesian Fulbright scholar spoke to our group and identified herself as a Muslim feminist. Ok, I can understand that. She supports equal rights for men and women. But I still can’t wrap my head around the idea that a person can believe men and women are equal, and still believe that women should cover their heads and men should not.

I know that sentiment puts me gravely in danger of sounding ignorant. I understand that wearing a jilbab is completely a choice. I understand that you can be smart and capable and independent and want to wear one. I understand that you can believe in the fair treatment of men and women and wear one. But when a person believes that women should cover their heads and men should not, that is not equal.

I know some people say the point isn’t really to be equal or the same, and I say, good, because it’s not.

Out of the 50 or so female teachers at my school, there is only one who doesn’t cover her head. She’s Muslim, married, and, interestingly enough, teaches World Culture. I asked her why she doesn’t wear a jilbab, and she said because she doesn’t want to and her mother never did.

I have another friend who refuses to wear the jilbab. She says God doesn’t care whether she covers her head or not. She says most women wear jilbabs less because of their personal relationship with God and moreso because of the way they’re treated in their community. I think that’s probably very true. Jilbabbed (verb?) women are at least initially almost always treated with more respect.

One male friend told me he would respect me more if I wore a head covering. I asked if that was true even though he knew I’m not Muslim and it would be an empty gesture, and he said yes.

Were I a better (or maybe just a more bitter) woman, I might have raised my eyebrows a bit at my school’s celebration. To honor women’s rights, IGM sponsored a fashion show, a cooking contest, and a singing competition. “Things women love!” they said.

Usually, my school has an unbelievable amount of food set out for holidays. I always end up eating the equivalent of about four full meals before 10:00am. So I tried to beat them at their own game and skipped breakfast. Hari Kartini is the one day when the men have to do all the cooking. But when I got to school, there were no sweet little cake rolls. No layered coconut snacks. No strangely-jiggly florescent gelatins.

“But I thought the men were cooking today!” I exclaimed as my belly rumbled. They laughed.

“Ahh, Ketty! That is a joke we tell! Men are supposed to cook, but they do not know how! So we do not have snacks on this day!”

In case you’re keeping track, the score is now Miss Ketty 3; Indonesia 1,289.

Everyone dresses up in traditional formal clothes for Kartini Day. For men, that’s dress pants and a batik-patterned shirt. For women, it’s usually a batik skirt with a kabaya for a top. Kabayas are bright and beautiful, usually incorporating a lot of lace and sequins. They can be really expensive (up to around $250 each), but the women can wear them many times. One of the teachers loaned me her mother’s kabaya. The teachers looove it when we all dress up, and it really was a lot of fun. We took somewhere around two million pictures.

The fashion show was delightfully fun. Each class chose two students to represent them, and they strutted their stuff on a makeshift catwalk. The singing contest was great, too. The middle school even let student bands accompany the contestants. And the cooking contest—oh my.

The students had the contest, but all of the male teachers were supposed to prepare fried rice for all the female teachers. In an effort to throw them off, however, the female teachers purchased all the ingredients, along with about six or seven items they were not supposed to put in. The women laughed and laughed as the men stood struggling over the baskets trying to decide what to use. I laughed heartily, though I was secretly glad no one put me to the test—how should I know what to use?!

Since we cancelled classes (shocking, no?), the day just centered around having fun and enjoying the contests. About women’s rights, little Sry writes, we are kartini in new generation,,,,keep struggling womans' emancipation...”

Also, Sry asked me yesterday if it was appropriate to say “untfloeeeeezveezeeteeng” when your period starts. (I swear my teachers are obsessed with menstruation.) So I said that phrase I’ve said so many times since arriving in Palembang, “I’m not sure I understand. Can you write that down?” Apparently her book taught her that most American women have a secret idiom code used for proclaiming the start of one’s period. “Aunt Flo is visiting.” I discouraged her from using the phrase.

I guess I feel the day was less a celebration of women’s rights and more a day to appreciate women and say, “Gosh, what would we all do in a world without ladies?” But there’s quite a bit of value in that, too.


  1. Another great post. Here's a question for a budding journalist: after two days, this is the first comment posted to this story. The previous story had seven comments in two days. Are people more interactive when it's humorous, or are they just uninterested in women's rights?

  2. To Dom, I think it's laziness - and when something is humorous, more people tend to post. But as for frequent posters like you and me, we love to read and keep tabs on our precious Ketty.

    You know, I had a friend in high school who when she started her "time," she would say "Herb's here." She was a crack up! Uncle Herb and Aunt Flo??? A good mix.

    I raised an eyebrow at the things "women love." You're doing great at keeping an open mind.

    How was the fried rice?