Tracing Dewi Sartika’s Struggle: Bandung, West Java

In Bandung, West Java, Dewi Sartika is better known as a jumbled road of traffic jams, sidewalk vendors and shopping centers. At a point halfway down the road to the south of the town square lies the squalid public minivan terminal of Kebon Kalapa, with its dirty puddles and bad odor on rainy days. Kautaman Istri, a girls’ school set up by Dewi Sartika during the Dutch colonial era, is now the name of a small street near the terminal. Both names are also used for several alleyways that meander around the school, which still stands strong today.

While the fame of the Sundanese Dewi Sartika as a national heroine seems to be fading, millions of students and women around the country still celebrate Kartini Day on April 21 in memory of this national heroine of Javanese noble birth. Most of these revelers are also able to sing the “Kartini song” by heart as the article in the Jakarta Post explains.

In contrast, a smaller community of women and elementary and junior high school students at Dewi Sartika today continue to commemorate the birthday of Ibu Dewi – as she is commonly called – by holding a bazaar, making a pilgrimage to the heroine’s tomb and holding a modest ceremony on Dec. 4 in Bandung.

“Kartini Day is only slightly marked (here), as we focus more on Ibu Dewi’s Dec. 4 birth anniversary. We lay wreaths on her tomb, organize a fair or bazaar and go to city hall to celebrate,” said
Rukiyah, 64, the junior high school principal at Dewi Sartika, where she has taught since 1960.

No “Dewi Sartika song” exists to be sung by all students across Indonesia, not even in Bandung; she is not as famous as Raden Ajeng Kartini. But they share the same merit as advocates who encouraged ordinary women to fight for their equal right to education – a difficult achievement under colonial rule.

Born into Sundanese aristocracy on Dec. 4, 1884, in Bandung, Dewi Sartika was the daughter of the former patih (mayor) of Bandung, Raden Demang Somanegara, and his wife Nyi Raden Rajapamekas.

Pioneer of education According to her biography by Yan Dayono, Sang Perintis: R. Dewi Sartika (The pioneer: R. Dewi Sartika), Dewi did not stick to her privileged birth by associating only with people of her class.

Unlike most girls of her time who were deprived of schooling, at the age of 7 this young lady and her siblings entered a Dutch school – Eerste Klasse School, a primary school for Dutch and Eurasian children – thanks to her father’s position. However, her Dutch education was short-lived because her father was banished to Ternate until his death for opposing the appointment of Martanagara, a family relation, as regent.

Dewi, too, had to move and was placed under the care of her uncle, the mayor of Cicalengka, located some 40 kilometers east of Bandung. She was fortunate, as she received her uncle’s instruction on Sundanese culture and history. A Dutch lady, the wife of a sub-provincial head, also gave her a Western cultural perspective.

The egalitarian spirit thus instilled made the 10 year-old Dewi determined to share her knowledge with the children of domestic servants at the Cicalengka kepatihan (mayor’s residence). She taught them how to read and write, and how to speak Dutch, using a bamboo tablet with pieces of charcoal and roof tile as chalk.

The literate and Dutch-speaking poor children at the residence later became the talk of the town.

Although Dewi might have been exploring her talent in teaching, in
an era when restrictive rules were imposed on the indigenous people, let alone women, her initiative eventually became a form of resistance against colonial injustice.

As a teenager, Dewi carried on with her teaching as she returned to live with her mother in Bandung. She was also able to win the support of her other uncle, regent Martanagara, despite his earlier suspicions because her father had once opposed his office.

Martanagara allowed Dewi to set up a school for female students, and in 1902, she utilized a small room behind her mother’s house to start teaching women’s skills like sewing, crocheting and cooking, along with reading and writing to female relatives.

Spreading equality History records Dewi as the founder of the first Sakola Istri (women’s school) in the Dutch East Indies region of Bandung on January 16, 1904, with 20 students.

This school occupied the hall of regent Martanagara, which is now the official residence of the Bandung mayor on Jl. Dalem Kaum. Owing to the growing number of students, the school moved in 1905 to a new room in Ciguriang-Kebon Cau (now Jl. Kautaman Istri), which was purchased with Dewi’s savings and the Martanagara’s personal assistance.

Luck was on her side in her pursuit of women’s education when, in 1906, she married Raden Kanduruan Agah Suriawinata – who, contrary to tradition, was the spouse of her choice, and a teacher at an Eerste Klasse School in Karang Pamulang, Bandung. Agah Suriawinata supported her aspirations and was a partner in developing the Sakola Istri.

Later, the sub-provincial head of Priangan W.F.L. Boissevain established on Nov. 5, 1910, the Perkumpulam Kautaman Istri (Women’s Virtue Association), an organization of Dutch and Indonesian sponsors who supported Dewi’s school.

In 1911, when Habis GelapTerbitlah Terang (From darkness comes light) – a collection of Kartini’s letters to a Dutch friend expressing her ideas on women’s emancipation – was in circulation, Dewi was expanding her educational efforts by founding schools across the regency.

By 1912, she had established nine schools in surrounding towns, including Cianjur, Garut, Purwakarta, Sukabumi, Sumedang and Tasikmalaya.

By 1914, Dewi’s schools, now bearing the new name Sakola Kautaman Istri, had spread the idea of women’s emancipation as far as Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, where another emancipator, Encik Rama Saleh, opened a school for girls under the same name.

In the 25th year of the Sakola Istri’s establishment, the Dutch East Indies government recognized Dewi Sartika’s efforts by awarding her a medal of merit. The schools’ name was again changed at this time, and became Sakola Raden Dewi.

The Dutch government honored Dewi with a gold medal when the school marked its 35th year.

After the demise of her husband and partner Agah Suriawinata on July 25, 1939, Dewi continued with her efforts alone until the end of Dutch colonization. The outbreak of revolution and the war of independence forced Dewi to close her schools. She fled the city along with most of the population during the Bandung Lautan Api (Bandung fire), when the city was burned to prevent the reentry of colonizers.

Dewi Sartika died Sept. 11, 1947, in Cineam, Tasikmalaya.
According to Hardi, 59, a third-generation caretaker of Karanganyar cemetery – the Bandung regent’s cemetery on Jl. Karanganyar where she is buried – Dewi’s remains were moved there three years after her death.

“When she was ill during the evacuation (of Bandung), she expressed a wish to be buried near her husband’s grave when she died,” he said.

Carrying the flame While Dewi may have passed, her passion for equal education has lived on. The rooms behind her mother’s house in Karanganyar, where she opened her first school for female students, are today part of the Dewi Sartika elementary and junior high school.

Yuce Suhaya, 67, a member of the Dewi Sartika Foundation, said that in 1951, the Bandung school became a teacher’s training school for girls, and began to accept male students in 1955. The same compound was also once used as a home economics and secretary school, until the 1968 opening of the elementary school and the junior high school in 1978, both for girls and boys.

Six classrooms measuring 7 by 6 meters each are preserved in the school as a cultural heritage in memory of Dewi Sartika, a pioneer of women’s education. The school is also recognized as a multicultural institution, perhaps the first of its kind in Bandung.

“Following the Sept. 30, 1965 rebellion, the school was appointed in 1968 to receive ethnic Chinese students, as no other schools were prepared to accommodate them,” added Yuce.

Dewi Sartika elementary, which once resounded with the voices of hundreds of children, has seen a decreasing number of students with the recent mushrooming of private schools.

Elementary school principal Sukaesih said the school now has only 88 students.

“Most of them are problem students, such as delinquent children or those lacking concentration in learning, who were sent here by their original schools for further improvement,” said Sukaesih.

Meanwhile, Dewi Sartika junior high has about 430 students, mostly girls. According to principal Rukiyah, the junior high still offers home economics classes to all girl students, once a week on Fridays.

“We also teach daily etiquette, in addition to computer skills and fashion design,” she said.

Apart from carrying on the great service rendered by Dewi Sartika, the school also teaches students about the founder of their school: who she was and what she did. In doing so, the school hopes to instill a sense of pride among its students and urge them to keep her aspirations alive.

When asked about the woman pioneer, Willy Santosa, a student at Dewi Sartika elementary, answered, “She’s a national heroine,” although he did not know Dewi’s birth date.

Another student, Puja Dameria Dillon, a 6th grader of Indian descent at Dewi Sartika elementary, promptly responded: “She’s a great heroine of West Java who founded this school.”