Raden Ajeng Kartini: Feminism, colonialism and difference

The role and position of women was a dominant trope in the discourse of colonial reform in turn of the 20th century colonial Indonesia. Dutch “progressives” as well as “conservatives” – men and women – employed representations of ‘the woman’ in asserting the moral superiority of Dutch civilisation. The imagined subjects of such discourse, European as well as Indonesian women, were respectively admired or admonished: “she” had a noble duty to perform, or she failed to perform it; “she” evidenced innocence or its loss; “she” performed “tradition” or she suffered it. The image of “the colonizing white woman” and the “the colonial Eurasian woman”; “the colonized native woman” and “the traditional woman not yet colonized” – or missionize were all central personas in the portrayal of colonial modernity. Within an emerging definition of Indonesian modernity these personas, too, soon found their counterparts: “the dangerous white woman”, “the Europeanised indigenous woman”, “the new modern woman”. Drawing on Frances Gouda’s (1993) concept of gendered rhetoric of colonialism and anti-colonialism, and the insights of Partha Chatterjee and Antoinette Burton, this paper demonstrates how images of the woman were mobilised to justify the expansion and intensification of colonial authority. At the turn of the twentieth century they provided the moral dimension that enabled Dutch colonialism to garner support from a newly democratised Dutch electorate, as, similarly, a little later, Indonesian images helped mobilise nationalist support. This rhetorical thematic therefore provided a key emotive underpinning for the modernities of colonial Indonesia (and elsewhere). The paper draws on a range of male and female authored, Dutch and Indonesian literary, journalistic and archival sources from the period 1890s to World War One to illustrate the range and function of such images in the construction of these alternative modernities.

Joost Coté is Senior Research Fellow in the School of Philosphical, Historical and International Studies, Faculty of Arts, Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. . As well as having translated the correspondence of pioneer Indonesian feminist, RA Kartini and her sisters, (Coté 1992, 2005, 2008), he has published on a range of issues related to colonial practice and cultures and modernity in early twentieth century Indonesia. He is currently preparing an annotated new English translation of the complete writings of Kartini due to be published in 2013.

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