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Aceh’s early heroines ignored by history books

On April 21, Indonesians celebrate Kartini Day in memory of Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879-1904), the pioneer of education for Javanese women. Javanese women in Kartini’s time, especially those of nobility, weresecluded in their homes after puberty until the day they married. But Kartini had different ideas. Through letters to her European friends, she eloquently expressed her thoughts and views on women’s role in society, saying women should be given an equal opportunity in education and play an equal role to men in the public sphere.

Although Kartini did mention in one of her letters her amicable encounterwith a noblewoman from Priangan who shared her struggles for equal rights (presumably Dewi Sartika) and her knowledge of a Minahasan woman who sharedher views and thoughts on the issue (presumably Maria Walanda-Maramis), little did Kartini know that her peers in neighboring Aceh already enjoyedthe freedom for which she yearned.

Admiral Malahayati

Admiral Malahayati

Almost three hundred years before Kartini’s birth on April 21, 1879, Sultan Alaidin Ri’ayat Syah IV of Aceh Darussalam (1589-1604) formed the Armada Inong Bale (Widows Armada) under the leadership of the legendary Admiral Malahayati. Malahayati and her armada courageously sailed the eastern shores of Sumatra, the Malacca Straits and the western shores of Malaya to guard their kingdom and nation. It was also Malahayati who causedthe Dutch naval captain Cornelis de Hautman to fail in his mission to attack Aceh. De Hautman later died in prison in Aceh. Malahayati’s legendary heroics were retold by Dutch author Marie van Zuchtelen in her Vrouwelijke Admiral Malahajati, where she admirably portrayed the chivalrous heroine leading battleships crewed by her 2,000 brave women warriors.

Admiral Malahayati also received the Queen of England’s envoy, Sir James Lancaster, who arrived in Banda Aceh on June 6, 1602. The naval base of theArmada Inong Bale in the Bay of the Great River was renamed Admiral Malahayati Seaport and her name is also honored on one of the battleships of the Republic of Indonesia.

Another way Acehnese women played a role in the public arena was the all-women palace guard regiment, known in the local language as Suke Kaway Istana, under the leadership of Admiral Meurah Ganti and Vice Admiral Cut Meurah Inseuen between 1604 and 1607. It was these women who saved the future Sultan Iskandar Muda from imprisonment by his rival, Sultan Muda Alaidin Ritayat Syah V.

Acehnese women were not, however, only known as warriors. They were also capable of being political leaders. Aceh was probably the only sultanate isthe world which recognized sultanas (women sultans) as heads of state. The first queen of Aceh was Ratu Nibrasiyah Rawa Khadiyu, who ruled the 15th century kingdom of Samudra Pasai. In the 17th century, four sultanas consecutively ruled the kingdom of Aceh Darussalam, namely Seri Ratu Tajul Alam Safiatuddin Syah (1641-1675), Seri Ratu Nurul Alam Nagiatuddin Syah (1675-1677), Seri Ratu Inayat Syah Zakiatuddin Syah (1677-1688) and Seri Ratu Karnalat Syah (1688-1699). Aceh also had several women uleebalang (rulers of autonomous regions, equivalent to a European duke), and in the days of Queen Safiatuddin, 18 of the 73 members of parliament were women.

These are the historically important women Indonesian children never learn about in school. Schoolchildren only know Acehnese heroines from modern Indonesian history, such as Cut Nyak Meutia (1870-1910) and the legendary Cut Nyak Dien (1850-1906), whose names are mentioned in history textbooks and who have had roads in major cities named after them. While Cut Nyak Dien’s face is also portrayed on the Indonesian Rp 10,000 banknote, we usually know no more than that about her. (Some, however, may recall that her story was made into the film Tjoet Nja’ Dhien in 1988, withChristine Hakim as the leading actress).

Even in modern history there are other Acehnese women whose names probably remain unknown to the majority of Indonesians, including Teungku Fakinah, Pocut Baren Biheue, Cutpo Fatimah and Pocut Meuligo. In their struggle against the Dutch, Acehnese women often played a major role in theconflict. Pocut Meuligo, the uleebalang of Samalanga, for example, convinced her brother Teuku Chik Bugis not to negotiate with the Dutch and to continue struggling against the colonialists. The same is true of Cut Nyak Dien. Not many know that her husband, Teuku Umar, was at one time pro-Dutch, until he joined his wife’s struggle against the colonialists. And Cut Nyak Meutia died on the battlefield with her husband Pang Nanggroe.

The 80 Year War — as it was known by the Dutch — was indeed a great loss for the colonialists, but many remember the tough grand dames of Aceh who were heavily involved in politics and war at a time when their Europeanpeers were still playing domestic roles, waiting for husbands or brothers to return home from the battlefield.

Pocut Menligo was another example of a brave woman who took over for her brother, Teuku Chik Bugis, in leading a battle in 1857. Riding her horse, she courageously ordered the people of Samalanga to leave their ricefields and join the fight against the Dutch. The one-eyed general, Van der Heijden, lost his eye in this battle against Pocut Menligo. And this took place two decades before Kartini was born

With all due respect to Kartini, whose genius was so remarkable for a young woman at that time, can we still say that she was the pioneer of Indonesian women’s emancipation? For Javanese noblewomen, perhaps yes, but certainly not for the whole nation. Maybe even Kartini would not like to claim the title because she was well-informed about her peers in West Java,Minahasa and even China. Writers such as Marianne Katoppo and historians like Harsja Bachtiar already have raised this issue.

Indonesian history textbook writers have a lot of homework to do in this age of reformasi.

Source: thejakartapost.com

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