HomeAsia-Pacific Social Science Reviewvol. 7 no. 2 (2007)

Exploring Colonial Boundaries: An Examination of the Kartini-Zeehandelaar Correspondence

Michael Hawkins

Discipline: History



Though Kartini is often revered as an emblem of nationalist and feminist thought in Indonesia, her enthusiastic embrace of these ideologies' Western variants actually illustrates the ways in which hegemonic colonial relationships are replicated, even under apparently progressive creeds. By subscribing to Western feminism Kartini attempted to access an alternative ideology and identity that simultaneously subverted Java's 'archaic' and 'inadequate' indigenous culture as well as Dutch colonial rule - thus allowing her to somewhat reconcile the apparent incongruities between nationalism and feminism. The problem, however, is that even though both Kartini and her Dutch pen pal, Stella Zeehandelaar, believed that their views placed them firmly outside the antiquated conventions that defined their world, in reality they both simply replicated the cruel dynamics of their shared colonial past. Both women dreamed of a more progressive and liberated world; however each was ultimately the inescapable victim of the various constructed categories that framed their respective colonial identities, namely, class, gender, and especially race. Though Kartini aligned herself with Dutch feminists, the strictures of imperial associations did not allow her to actually become a 'Dutch feminist'. She remained Javanese. This mutually acknowledged 'fact'inevitably called forth an imposed and agreed upon notion of indigenous inadequacy, which ultimately prevented true transnational sisterhood with her Dutch contemporaries. Kartini's choice to enter into a traditional polygamous marriage indicates the pervasiveness of her own self-acknowledged place in colonial society. Realizing, perhaps even on a subconscious level, that her racial and cultural heritage did not provide the social credentials necessary to overcome imperially imposed categories of 'superiority' and 'inferiority', she resigned herself (perhaps unconsciously) to the roles assigned her by the circumstances of history.