The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Kartini’s legacy gets the Kiwi touch Duncan Graham

They see themselves as the inheritors and custodians of the spirit of Raden Ajeng Kartini, national heroine and pioneer of women’s rights.

They are modern Indonesian women who are pursuing their own careers through further education and offering the younger generation role models of independence without devaluing their culture.

However their pride is cautious and conservative. Outside Indonesia they are seen as stand-alone professionals, respected for their learning and skills and what they do.

Yet they also know that when they are back home in Malang, East Java they’ll first be assessed as wives and mothers. However smart they may be in a competitive workforce they’ll still be viewed as second-class citizens by many Indonesians, just by virtue of their gender.

“Women are getting better educated and as a result more independent,” said Dr Lily Agustina, an agricultural scientist and lecturer at Malang’s Brawijaya University where she heads a study program.

“There are plenty of opportunities for women in Indonesia, but men are still seen as the head of the household. So are we modern Kartinis? Well, not yet.”

Lily, who specialises in organic farming, was one of seven senior women academics from Brawijaya who have been studying English full time in New Zealand. They’ve been accompanied by ten male colleagues from the same university.

Although they are all highly qualified, mainly middle-aged and well-established in their prestigious positions they have chosen to leave their husbands and children for three months to improve their education overseas. They’ve been doing this in an egalitarian Western country where their status is that of just another student.

New Zealand has been a leader in women’s rights, the first country in the world to give women the vote. That was in 1893, 14 years after the Javanese aristocratic Kartini was born and when she was starting to mildly question the established order and develop her ideas of equality.

Kartini died after childbirth aged 25 and was declared a national heroine in 1964 with her birthday a national holiday.

Her legacy is the acceptance of women’s rights to education, though in other areas, such as property rights in marriage, women still lag behind. The Brawijaya seven have been noting NZ law where a divorced wife automatically has the rights to 50 per cent of her husband’s property, and where joint ownership of bank accounts and land titles are common.

But old ideas about gender roles die hard.

“Men and women can’t be the same because they have different functions,” said plant tissue culture expert Dr Wahyu Widoretno. “Women give birth. Men can’t do that. In our religion men have to be the leaders.”

Eavesdropping was Professor Woro Busono, the deputy vice rector of student affairs who contributed: “And women can’t have more than one husband,” a remark that was greeted with brief and brittle laughter by the ever-so-polite Indonesian women. Fortunately for him there were no Kiwi feminists nearby or an international incident might have exploded, demanding ambassadorial intervention.

Wahyu added pensively, her mind on her domestic situation more than the battle of the sexes: “We don’t know how they can survive without us.”

Others, like Dr Nurul Isnaini from the faculty of animal husbandry, had a more robust take: “We all have our roles but men and women should treat each other with respect, whatever we do. I think we are the new Kartinis.”

The Indonesian academics have been sent to NZ as part of Brawijaya’s bid to set up international study programs where the classroom language will be English. Next year the university plans to recruit students from nearby Asian countries to learn in Malang and establish Brawijaya as a tertiary institution of regional repute.

The 17 Indonesians have been studying at Massey University in Wellington, the NZ capital. On their return they will head new post-graduate programs across several faculties.

For most it has been their first trip to a Western country. They have been staying with host families and their home university has paid all their expenses.

When they arrived in NZ they found that their years of formal study of English to be of little help when they crashed into the Kiwi vowel-warping accents head on. “We had to rapidly learn a new tongue – Tarzan English,” said analytical chemist Dr Atikah who had no qualms about making the appropriate arm-waving, finger-wagging gestures to embellish her requests.

“We were not fluent in English. Our education had been formal and passive. We had concentrated on theory, not practise.

“We’ve had no discrimination, though we were a little concerned before we left home because we’d heard of attacks on women wearing headscarves in Australia. That has not happened. People here have been friendly and helpful.

“We’ve had to forget about jam karet (rubber time). Here we have to be disciplined and that’s been good for us. I’ve changed my habits, and I hope I won’t change back again when I return home.”

Other shocks have been the pace of life – “rush, rush” commented Lily, though most visitors from Europe, the US and Australia reckon the NZ lifestyle is so laid back that it’s practically stationary.

Ignorance of Indonesia has been a concern so the academics have had to spend time explaining that the republic is not a hotbed of terrorism, but a land where friendly folk help each other through the principle of gotong royong – community self help.

When challenged on their mild disapproval of the Western culture of individualism they acknowledged that NZ society, despite it’s mind-your-own-business philosophy, had a similar set of values when it came to people assisting their neighbors at times of need.

(That morning a NZ community had rapidly raised $NZ 8,000 (Rp 50 million) to repatriate the body of a penniless young Kiwi who had died after a fight in Bali.)

The way Kiwi women dress and behave did not worry the academics, though it would distress the police in some Indonesian provinces. “That’s their culture and their business,” said Nurul. “I think it’s more of a problem for the men.”

Commented economist Dr Kusuma Ratnawati: “Some of the difficulties facing women in Indonesia come from within. Many are not brave enough to assert themselves. Some feel their jobs are not as important as men’s work.

“It’s important that we help empower them to have confidence in themselves, to lift their spirits.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 21 April 2009)

Picture above: From left Hamidah Nayati Utami, Wahyu Widoretno, Atikah, Ani Mulyasuryani, Lily Agustina, Nurul Isnaini, Kusuma Ratnawati.