Indonesian Women Find Strength in the Kebaya

By webadmin on 06:48 pm Apr 20, 2012
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Sylviana Hamdani

About 300 women dressed in their best kebayas, or traditional Javanese blouses, gathered at a plush ballroom in Jakarta recently to celebrate women, fashion and Indonesia’s most prominent feminist, Raden Ajeng Kartini.

The event, Kartini Berbagi (Kartini Shares), was held on April 13 at the Grand Hyatt to commemorate the Indonesian heroine before the national holiday tomorrow that will celebrate her birthday and legacy.

Hosted by, a group of luminaries, socialites and top Indonesian business executives, the extravaganza featured a photo exhibition, a handicraft bazaar and a fashion show, as well as a kebaya auction to raise funds for a pesantren, or Islamic boarding school, in Probolinggo, East Java.

The group, founded four years ago by some friends, regularly holds charity events to raise funds and build religious facilities for street children, orphans and victims of natural disasters, in addition to supporting the boarding school, Zainul Hasan Genggong. Today, has 26 female members and is working on creating a Web site.

“We started from a group of friends that shared knowledge and experience,” said Didiet Tachril, the group’s chairwoman. “We’re also trying to help and support the education of Indonesia’s disadvantaged young people.”

Yulie Setyohadi, chairwoman of the Kartini Berbagi executive committee, said the group had been supporting the boarding school since the beginning.

“Today, we’re raising funds to establish computer classes and Internet facilities for the female school in the pesantren,” she said.

The boarding school, which is home to more than 6,000 male and female students, was established in 1839, four decades before Kartini was born.

“Like Kartini, today’s women have to be smart and creative,” Yulie said. “With their intelligence and creativity, they can improve their own lives and become successful.”

Kartini was born in 1879 to a noble family in Jepara, Central Java. Like all women of the era, she was not encouraged to continue her education after finishing elementary school.

But young Kartini was thirsty for knowledge, so despite her lack of formal schooling, she voraciously read books and newspapers at home.

She was also inspired by women’s right movements abroad, specifically in Europe, and she wrote to friends in the Netherlands to stay informed of the events there.

In 1903, Kartini married to Raden Adipati Joyodiningrat, the regent of Rembang in Central Java. It was an arranged marriage, but it did not stifle her ambitions; Kartini’s new husband understood her aspirations and allowed her to establish schools for women in Rembang.

Just a year later, however, Kartini passed away after giving birth to her first son. After her death, her women’s schools spread to other cities in Java.

Kartini’s thoughts were also preserved through her letters, which were collected by J. H. Abendanon, a minister of culture, religion and industry in the Dutch East Indies. In 1911, he published them in the book “Door Duisternis tot Licht” (“Out of the Dark Comes Light”).

“It was this book that inspired my grandmother Suyatin Kartowijono to start anticolonial and women’s movements in Indonesia,” said Ade Syarfuan, a member of

In 1945, Suyatin established the Association of Indonesian Women (Perwari) in Klaten, Central Java, which has grown into a national association supporting women’s rights and education.

Inspired by Kartini and her grandmother, Ade and her close friends also established Rumah Pesona Kain, a group of Indonesian fabric collectors who promote Indonesian traditional textiles such as the kebaya.

The textiles, she says, are a tangible expression of women’s pride. At Kartini Berbagi, she wore a chic maroon kebaya and a batik sarong by designer Andre Frankie.

“A kebaya makes women look feminine and very respectable,” she said.

The highlight of Kartini Berbagi was the fashion show, which featured the latest kebaya collections from several top fashion designers, including Andre, Adjie Notonegoro, Raden Sirait and Didiet Maulana.

Classic Javanese dances kicked off the show, all accompanied by a live gamelan orchestra. Andre’s series of long kebayas in variations of red brocade were a particular hit. His long kebaya in rich vermilion was paired with a red songket sarong, made with handwoven material from Sumatra and embellished with large peacock patterns in silver thread.

“My kebayas are all made by hand,” the designer said. “They’re made attached with the bustier to highlight a woman’s feminine figure.”

Designer Raden also featured his latest collection of kebayas, which were adorned with sparkling sequins and crystals.

His masterpiece was a saffron kebaya with multicolored gemstones that he paired with a long batik skirt of the same hue. A long side slit enhanced the skirt with a subtle sexiness.

Adjie’s kebaya collection came across as simple and elegant. Made of sheer lace and brocade with discreet sequin appliques along the edges, they gave the models an air of grace.

Modeling duties for the show were performed a mix of members and professional models.

Monica Aziz, a model from the Czech Republic, walked the runway in a blue sapphire kebaya by Andre. She has fallen in love with kebayas, she says, opting to wear them to social events.

“A kebaya makes a woman feel special,” she said. “You’ll feel very sexy, but also traditional in a kebaya.”

The show’s finale featured Didiet’s candy-colored kebayas, which were paired with songket sarongs from Pandai Sikek, West Sumatra. The kebayas, which were auctioned specifically to raise funds for the boarding school, sold for between Rp 10 million ($1,100) and Rp 20 million each.

Entrepreneur and educator Mien Uno applauded the event and its purpose.

“It’s very positive,” she said. “The event encourages us not only to dress up and look pretty, but also to share. By sharing, we empower others, just like Kartini did.”