On Tuesday (19 April 2016), in the lead up to Kartini Day, staff and volunteers at Mitra Wacana held a discussion about their female heroes. Five of the women we discussed were from Indonesia. Kartini was mentioned, of course, and also freedom fighter Cut Nyak Dien, workers’ rights activist Marsinah, and politicians Megawati Sukarnoputri and Tri Rismaharini. For the foreigners in the discussion, it was the first time they had heard of some of these women. Here is a brief overview of each woman’s struggles and achievements.

Cut Nyak Dien (1848 – 6 November 1908)

Cut Nyak Dien’s efforts in the resistance to Dutch colonial power are well known in Indonesia. Born into a noble family in the Kingdom of Aceh, she fought against the Netherlands during the Aceh War from 1873 to 1904. Her first husband and father of her first child was killed on 29 June 1878. Cut Nyak Dien vowed to lead the resistance against the Dutch and avenge her husband’s death. She married another resistance fighter who was also killed in 1899. Cut Nyak Dien continued the fight until, as an elderly woman with physical ailments such as poor vision, she was captured by the Dutch and imprisoned in West Java. She continued to communicate with resistance fighters until she was exiled to Sumedang, West Java. There she taught the local community about Islam until her death from natural causes in 1908.

She features on the 10,000 rupiah note and was declared a National Hero of Indonesia by Presidential Decree on May 2, 1964. She is revered for her leadership at a time when women were expected to be subordinate to men.

Raden Adjeng Kartini (21 April 1879 – 17 September 1904)

RA Kartini was an early Indonesian feminist. As the daughter of a Javanese aristocrat, she was allowed to get a primary education however, like most aristocratic women at the time, her father did not allow her to continue on to high school. For Javanese people, secondary education was excluded to aristocratic males. Javanese people from lower social classes usually received no education at all. She expressed her views about the emancipation of Indonesia from Dutch colonial rule and women from confinement to domestic roles in her letters to friends in Europe. She opened the first school for Javanese girls of all social classes. Sadly, she died while giving birth to her first child.

Her birthday is commemorated nationally every year. This tradition started under the New Order and was used as a way to promote femininity and domestication of women. Today organisations such as Mitra Wacana are working to promote Kartini’s thoughts on freedom and equal opportunities for all genders and social backgrounds. [For further reading about Kartini, search ‘Kartini’ on Mitra Wacana’s website].

Marsinah (10 April 1969 – 8 May 1993)

This is an infamous case of the murder of an innocent woman, which is believed to be in relation to her participation in workers strikes. She worked at a watch manufacturing company in East Java. The workers went on strike after the company did not increase their wages in accordance with a circular from the Regency Governor. When the company finally agreed to the workers’ demands, Marsinah participated in the negotiations. Days later, Marsinah was discovered dead in a rice field. Her body showed signs of torture and rape.

In 1994, managers from the factory where Marsinah worked were convicted of her murder, however it is widely believed they were tortured into making false confessions and the local military were actually responsible. Later Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission found a number of irregularities in the process, and in 1995 all the defendants were released. Successive governments reopened her case however it was never resolved.

Marsinah has been upheld as an inspiration for the workers’ struggle in Indonesia.

Megawati Sukarnoputri (23 January 1947 – )

Megawati, as she is usually known, was the first female president of Indonesia (serving from 2001 – 2004). She was elected to Indonesia’s national parliament, the People’s Consultative Assembly, in 1987. She became the head of the Indonesian Democratic Party, PDI, in 1993 however was removed in 1996 by then-President Suharto. In 1998, Suharto resigned as president. In October that year, Megawati and her supporters founded the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, known locally as PDI-P. They won 34 percent of the vote in the 1999 parliamentary elections, however Megawati was not chosen as president. Abdurrahman Wahid (known as Gus Dur) became president and persuaded Megawati to stand for vice-president. On 23 July 2001, the People’s Consultative Assembly elected Megawati as president of the Indonesian Republic.

Her critics say her presidency was a birthright as the daughter of the first president of the Republic of Indonesia, Sukarno, however others credit Megawati with stabilising Indonesia and overseeing its path to democracy.

Tri Rismaharini (20 November 1961 – )

“Risma” is the current mayor of Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia. She has held office since 2010. She trained as an architect and city planner and has famously applied that knowledge to transform the city of Surabaya. Where once the river was a dumping ground for rubbish, houses now face on to it and families can enjoy picnics on its banks. She has also improved drainage systems and water catchment areas to reduce flooding in Surabaya, which anyone who has lived in Indonesia during wet season will know is a major issue. In July 2014 she shut down Dolly, one of southeast Asia’s largest red-light districts. She is a member of Megawati’s PDI-P.

Her impact is visible in the transformation of Surabaya which she has led and fought hard for. Her work is commended globally and she was nominated for the World Mayor Prize in 2014. Many Mitra Wacana team members agree she is a modern day Kartini.


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