April 21 in Indonesia is Kartini Day, marking the anniversary of the birth of Kartini (1879-1904) who is regarded there as a national heroine for her feminism and for her promotion of the education and emancipation of Indonesian women during the Dutch colonial era. This occasion gives us the opportunity to look more closely at her short life but also to consider the wider topic of Dutch colonial literature, a growing area of interest in recent years. Most of the resources I reference here are available online.
Kartini was born in Jepara, northern Java to an aristocratic family but attended a Dutch primary school where she learnt to read and write Dutch, which later gave her the chance to absorb Western ideas. From the age of twelve she experienced the tradition of pingitan, when a teenage girl was kept at home after their first menstrual period until they were married, often denied further education. She was more fortunate than most, however, as her father did permit her to read books and to send letters to Dutch friends. From the age of 16 (the age at which most young women were expected to marry) she was also occasionally allowed to leave her seclusion for the wider world. She strongly resisted the pressure to marry for some time but eventually in 1903 she did agree to marry a man from another aristocratic family. The following year she gave birth to a boy but sadly died a few days later.