Uncovering the Lives of Javanese Women Before the 20th Century

Uncovering the Lives of Javanese Women Before the 20th Century

javaprivatetour.com – Being a Javanese woman before the 20th century was no walk in the park as they were confined within limited boundaries. If they hailed from the common folk, their every move would draw attention.

Raden Ayu Matah Ati or Raden Ajeng Kartini, however, stood out—those who were fortunate enough and had the resilience to survive, eventually ascending to positions of leadership.

R.A Kartini, Tough Woman Fighter for Emancipation
R.A Kartini, Tough Woman Fighter for Emancipation!

“Raden Ayu Matah Ati, as the commander of the Prajurit Estri warriors during the era of Mangkunegara I, until the emergence of emancipation through Raden Ajeng Kartini’s struggle, serves as evidence that the character of Javanese women underwent redefinition,” wrote Desy and her team.

Desy Nurcahyanti, alongside her research team, penned an article in the Panggung journal titled “Mbok Mase” and “Mbok Semok”: Reinterpreting the Character of Javanese Women in Batik Culture, published in 2021.

The societal stigma of that era confined women to narrow spaces. And it was the figures of women’s emancipation who “ultimately reshaped perceptions about women’s capabilities beyond the domestic sphere: the kitchen, the well, the bed,” she added.

According to Desy, the domestic realm of Javanese women at that time was confined by societal norms to activities revolving around household chores. Javanese women were associated solely with childcare, cooking, cleaning, dressing up, and serving their husbands.

Postcard featuring a Javanese woman
Postcard featuring a Javanese woman published by Lambert & Co. Singapore, around 1900. The photographer, Gustav Richard Lambert (1846-1907). The background painting mimics the environment, seemingly aiming to reinforce the prejudice that Javanese people live close to nature.

Their right to voice aspirations was also restricted. “Their voices were stifled, especially the opportunity to express opinions and socialize in wider society was taboo,” she continued.

Only women of high status or from respected backgrounds, such as nobles or aristocrats of the kingdom, had the right to voice their opinions. Others were often disregarded.

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On the flip side of societal stigma was the disgrace attached to a Javanese woman liking a man of lower status, and vice versa.

“If a man from a respected family or with a high-ranking position desired a woman of lower status (not equal) to be his wife, even if the woman and her family disagreed, they had to comply (submit) because refusal was considered a disaster,” she revealed.

Men of high status or officials sometimes took advantage of the opportunity to marry a girl they fancied by offering loans (debt) of a certain amount.

Javanese women pounding rice with a pestle and mortar in 1915
Javanese women pounding rice with a pestle and mortar in 1915. Until the early 20th century, not many Javanese women wore kutang. They commonly wore kemben.

The Javanese society of that time was still obedient to the king’s decrees and leaders, thus surrendering a woman to a high-ranking official as a wife was considered an honor and pride.

Not all women who were married in such a manner became legitimate wives; the majority had to resign themselves to being garwo ampeyan (first wife), garwo ampil (second wife), or concubines. These status differences were related to the division of wealth and inheritance for their offspring.

Fortunately, by the dawn of the 20th century, women began to actively participate in various movements, paving the way for women’s emancipation. From there, the veil covering their lives started to change, leading to the world we experience today.

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