Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, when we appreciate how much women have achieved and how sexism and unequal opportunities still exist. The very first Women’s Day was organized by the Socialist Party of America in the United States on February 28th, 1909, in 1911 the Socialist International declared an International Women’s Day, and, finally, it was only in 1975 that the UN began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8th. As you can see, this is a very Eurocentric account of the women’s struggle for the agency and independence that they deserve. It is precisely in this spirit that I write this article to try and look at how women fought back against both patriarchy and colonialism in India and Indonesia.

Sebastian Sirotin, Publication Director, The Netherlands

“Who could deny that the woman has a great task to perform in the moral development of society? It is she, precisely she, who is the one to do this; she can contribute much, if not most, to ensure the improvement of the moral standards of society” (Kartini and Coté 2014, 811)

In the case of India the major issue taking center stage in Indian politics from about 1900-1947 was Indian independence from the British Empire (Nandini 2016, 152). Nonetheless, even before the year 1900 a trend of a growing concern for women can be traced. At the start, this concern was framed within the discourse of colonialism as a means of justification. For example, Ram Mohan Roy, to a certain extent out of feelings of ‘backwardness’, was working towards the ending of sati, the immolation of widows, greater women’s education, and greater property rights for women throughout the 19th century. Imperial discourses of inferiority in the mid-19th century resulted in more efforts in women’s education, fighting for abolishing child marriage, and fighting to end dowries on the part of the Arya Samaj society (Nadnini 2016, 153). However, it was only at the turn of the century that women’s movements began to be led by women after Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, an Indian nationalist, grew dissatisfied with the lack of women’s roles in the Indian National Congress (INC) and started the Bharat Stree Mahamandal in 1910 to fight for women’s education (Nadnini 2016, 153-154).

Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, the Bengali feminist (Image credits hyperlinked)

Despite there now being an organization fighting for women’s education, there still remained the question of women’s suffrage, which was also a serious global issue not only contained to India. And, in order to fight for this right, the Bangiya Nari Samaj (BNS) was created in 1921 in order to campaign for women’s voting rights in Bengal with Kamini Roy (here are some samples of her work in English and Bengali), the famous Bengali feminist poet as one of its leaders (Southard 1993, 405-406). However, the BNS lost the vote for suffrage by 19 votes in 1921, with those in the Bengali legislature claiming that giving women the right to vote would lead to the neglect of home and hearth and that “prostitutes…would flock to the polls” (Southard 1993, 409, 414). In other states, only Mumbai and Chennai gave women limited voting rights in 1921. It wasn’t until India’s independence in 1947 that women were given full legal voting rights.

Kamini Roy, the Bengali poet and feminist (Image credits hyperlinked)

Among other key achievements by women during this time, was their key role in abolishing the indentured labor system, not to mention effecting political change before the suffrage movement had even begun in earnest. When for the first time, in 1917, a group of elite women brought a petition requesting the end of the system to the Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford (Nijhawan 2014, 113). The petition ultimately proved successful with the full dismantling of the indentured labor system being enacted with the end of WWI (Nijhawan 2014, 114). Indentured labor, sometimes known as ‘indentured servitude’, was the colonial labor system following the abolishment of slavery, wherein the worker signed a contract giving up certain rights for a specified period of time.

Towards the end of British colonialism in India, women still played a role in fighting for Indian independence through Subhas Chandra Bose’s Rani of Jhansi Regiment in WWII, which drew women from across Malaysia, Singapore, and Burma to help fight for Indian independence with the help of the Japanese army (Hills and Silverman 1993, 741). For Bose, these women represented strength and “were rooted in Indian mythology and history [and were]…a prerequisite for national liberation”, for example in the image of Mata Bharat (Mother India) (Hills and Silverman 1993, 742). For the women in the regiment, there were a range of feelings from elation to a wish to see India free; also, rather than simply following orders, these women often pushed Bose to make good on his promise of equality by expanding women’s role in the Indian Independence League and continued to do so, petitioning Bose whenever they were relegated to stereotyped women’s roles like nursing wounded soldiers (Hills and Silverman 1993, 744-747).

Subhas Chandra Bose (Image credits hyperlinked)

So, the history of Indian women’s struggle for their rights under colonialism represents a story not told often enough, the importance of women in fighting for education, suffrage, an end to indentured labor, and even taking up arms for Indian independence. Even today, women’s struggles in India continue, in particular concerning the taboo of menstruation, as seen in the Netflix documentary film Period. End of Sentence, and expressing freedom and sexuality, in the movie Lipstick Under My Burkha.

In the context of Indonesia, it is extremely interesting to look at the case of Raden Adjeng Kartini, lived 1879-1904, and her feminist struggles. After first starting out as being involved in the Dutch women’s rights movement, she even contributed to the Nationale Tentoonstelling van Vrouwenarbeid in The Hague, Kartini’s thoughts can often be seen in her correspondence (Kartini and Coté 2014, 65). In her letters, Kartini expressed her dissatisfaction with tradition and what it meant for women, writing in 1899 that:

“you cannot know what it is like to love this present, this new age – your age – with heart and soul, yet, at the same time, be still bound, hand and foot, chained to the laws, practices and customs of one’s land from which it is impossible to escape.” (Kartini and Coté 2014, 67)

Kartini goes to describe how difficult a choice she faces in wanting to break these traditions, but also how her love of her family made her unwilling to break convention and “break the heart of those who have shown me nothing but love and goodness”  (Kartini and Coté 2014, 68). Ultimately, these bonds proved too strong to break with Kartini having to give up a full scholarship to study in The Netherlands for marriage in 1903 (Kartini and Coté 2014, 836). Nonetheless, Kartini continued working to help Indonesian women by petitioning the government for women’s education, though initially only for nobility but with the end goal of reaching all women. As Kartini says in a memorandum to the government in 1903:

“Who could deny that the woman has a great task to perform in the moral development of society? It is she, precisely she, who is the one to do this; she can contribute much, if not most, to ensure the improvement of the moral standards of society. … The education and development of the Javanese people can never adequately advance if women are excluded” (Kartini and Coté 2014, 811)

Before her marriage, Kartini and her sisters established a small girls’ school in their own home. And even after her marriage, Kartini continued working for education by establishing a small school in her new household for her stepchildren (Mahy 2012). Although she died young, her impact on Indonesia has remained, with April 21st being officially made Kartini Day from 1964 onwards (Mahy 2012). On Kartini Day, celebrations include pilgrimages to Kartini’s grave, women wearing a kebaya kartini (a traditional blouse and dress), Kartini look-alike competitions, women’s art exhibitions, and sometimes women’s rights protests (Mahy 2012). However, with a critical eye towards the myth of Kartini, one must ask how much it is still working in forging new frontiers for women’s rights. For example, Kartini’s life is often used to measure the state of women’s rights today, which are two entirely different contexts, the Kartini look-alike competitors are often judged on “grace” and “elegance”, as the term kartini has been used to portray “either a (modern) heroine or a (traditional) victim” (Mahy 2012).

Raden Adjeng Kartini, the Indonesian feminist (Image credits hyperlinked)

Nonetheless, other feminists have come to the fore in trying to push the boundaries of what is acceptable through performance art by the Kelompok PEREK collective, with local focused feminist art in the late 90’s and early 2000s, and Arahmaiani, whose art focuses on gender and religion (Dirgantoro 2017, 169, 173, 177).

Although great strides have been made in Indonesia and India, and even the world, there is still a lot to be done in giving women their intrinsic rights and their equality. But, there must be some hope if these women, even in the most adverse of circumstances of being oppressed by discourses of patriarchy and civilizational enlightenment, through colonialism, were able to effect change in their societies for the better, and even work towards liberating them.

On that note, it may be even more inspiring to briefly recount the story of how the 1931 All-Asian Women’s Conference (AAWC), attended by India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Afghanistan, Burma (Myanmar), Japan, Persia, and had US, Javanese, New Zealander, and British visitors, to discussed anti-colonialism, the development of a pan-Asian ‘sisterhood’, and how to address women’s rights in Asia (Mukherjee 2017, 370-371). When looking at the past, women are often ignored or seen as invisible with few important roles to play. However, given these previous examples, it is important to remember that, despite the difficulties these women faced, history was quite the opposite.

Categories: History