Not your Average National Hero: Scattered Archives and the Women of the Indonesian Anticolonial Movement

In her captivating autobiographical novel Buiten het gareel [Out of Line], the Indonesian author Suwarsih Djojopuspito painted a vivid image of her experiences as an activist teacher during the last few years of Dutch rule in Indonesia. The book, published in Dutch in 1940, tells the story of Sulastri, an idealistic young teacher who runs a non-governmental school for Indonesian children together with her husband, Sugondo.

In the 1930s, independent schools like theirs were a key site of anticolonial activism. Frustrated by the very limited and often low-quality educational options that the colonial Department of Education offered Indonesian children, activists opened schools all across the archipelago. Unsurprisingly, the colonial government saw these schools as a dangerous threat to its authority. A refusal to close a school in observance of the birthday of the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina was enough to provoke a visit from the colonial police. In the novel, Sulastri and Sugondo deal with increasing insecurity as they face dire financial circumstances and police harassment.

Their story helps me question the ways in which women’s writing intersects with the history of Indonesian anticolonialism. Buiten het gareel is a powerful testament to women’s roles as teachers and organizers in the Indonesian anticolonial school movement. Yet, in historical accounts of the ‘wild schools’, as Dutch officials mockingly called independent schools, female activists often remain invisible. As in so many other contexts, the Indonesian national narrative is usually understood as a story of great men, with the occasional exceptional woman mixed in. The current list of official Pahlawan Nasional, Heroes of the Indonesian Republic, counts fifteen women among its 190 members.

The first page of an issue of the Taman Siswa magazine Poesara, 1931. Photograph courtesy of Kirsten Kamphuis, personal collection.

Apart from this institutionalized invisibility, the question of how to do justice to the experiences of women activists is complicated further because the relevant source material defies straightforward definitions. There were hundreds of non-governmental schools, and many were part of large anticolonial school networks, but none of these underground organizations left an official archive. The historian Agus Suwignyo has demonstrated that memorial books, magazines and memoirs, as well as oral history interviews, are invaluable sources about activist teachers.1 Still, as gender historians have long argued, we must aspire to do more than just tick a box on any woman that appears in the source material if we want to go beyond ‘adding women and stirring’.2 Instead, we need to confront the question of how existing source material—rare as it may be—is shaped by the gendered dynamics at work at the heart of activist communities and the context in which they operated.

This question is as pertinent for the archives of the Dutch colonial government as for source material produced by activists themselves. Even in those instances where archival material is abundant, I am often confronted with a deafening silence on women’s activism. One box of police files in the archives of the colonial government, now located in the Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia (ANRI) in Jakarta, testifies to the experiences of Indonesians who were forcibly removed from their teaching jobs for spreading what colonial officials saw as undesirable sentiments. But among dozens of files, there is only one that tells the story of a woman who was ousted from her job: that of SK Trimurti, who was an outspokenly anticolonial journalist and had tight connections to the early Indonesian socialist movement. One explanation for women’s absence in the archives of the colonial government is that the police simply found it hard to believe that women would engage in anticolonial activism. This attitude is reflected in Buiten het gareel as well: after several police searches at the school, Sugondo is eventually banned from teaching, while Sulastri is never even interrogated. In 1932, the Muslim activist Rasuna Said was the first woman to be arrested on charges of political agitation, at a point in time when countless men had already been imprisoned or exiled.

At the same time, women’s voices sometimes pop up in unexpected places. I experienced this most poignantly at my first research visit to the library of the Taman Siswa organization in Yogyakarta. After opening its first school in 1922, Taman Siswa [Garden of Students] built a network of more than a hundred schools in Java, Sumatra and Borneo. In the words of Taman Siswa founder Ki Hajar Dewantara, the curriculum represented a ‘return to the national’. Children studied classical Javanese literature, dance and music, alongside their regular school subjects as a way to reacquire a sense of Indonesian cultural identity that Taman Siswa teachers feared had been lost under Dutch colonial rule.3 At the museum located on the grounds of the first Taman Siswa school, visitors are welcomed by a larger-than-life bust of Ki Hajar Dewantara and can admire a selection of his personal memorabilia. This confirms his status as a historical celebrity: he was one of the first people to receive the status of National Hero, and his birthday is commemorated yearly as Hari Pendidikan Nasional, National Education Day.

Given the absence of a Taman Siswa archive, most historians rely on Ki Hajar Dewantara’s publications for insight into the organization. The Taman Siswa library also houses his personal correspondence, parts of which have recently been digitized in a collaborative Wikisource project. Although these letters, like his many books and articles, are a rich source, they provide little indication for the ideas and motivations of women like Djojopuspito’s Sulastri. Ki Hajar Dewantara and other prominent male Taman Siswa leaders certainly did write about women, but their articles diminished my hopes of encountering traces of female agency. They constantly stressed that women’s kodrat, their innate nature, directed them towards the household and the spiritual realm, while men were destined to play an active role in the public sphere.

Wanita Taman Siswa members at a protest meeting, 1932. Koleksi Foto Digital Museum Dewantara Kirti Griya (Tamansiswa), accessed April 20, 2021.

Imagine my excitement when I started leafing through the pages of the Taman Siswa magazine Poesara [Bond] and encountered numerous articles written by female activists. Taman Siswa women appeared to have been prolific writers and, contrary to my expectations, they did not limit themselves to domestic issues. Women debated the moral and legal aspects of polygamy, reflected on the importance of girls’ education, and encouraged each other to learn more about politics and the economy.4 They never abandoned the kodrat principle—in practically every article, Taman Siswa women reminded their audience of the importance of remaining true to ‘women’s nature’—but their writings do reveal that the distinction between male and female spheres of influence within Taman Siswa was far less rigid than Ki Hajar Dewantara’s work suggests.

The image collection of the library had even more surprises in store. I was aware of the existence of Wanita Taman Siswa, the women’s branch of the organization, but had little sense of its activities. One picture showed a group of members, many of them holding small children, at a meeting in 1932. Only from the caption it became clear that this was, in fact, a protest rally, organized in response to a government crackdown on independent schools.  In the picture Sutartinah Sasruningrat, who as the wife of the founder went by Nyi Hajar Dewantara, sits to the right of the sign. As the president of the women’s branch, she was a prominent spokeswoman who contributed to the first Indonesian Women’s Conference in 1928. Tellingly, in the Taman Siswa museum she is represented by one of her precious batik fabrics, an item that locates her firmly in the private sphere. But as we have seen, Taman Siswa women’s identification with domestic life did not stop them from engaging in lively political debates that they saw as relevant for themselves and other Indonesian women. Wanita Taman Siswa members, as well as Sulastri and other activist teachers, are representatives of the many ways in which Indonesian women have contributed to social struggles. Theirs is a legacy that links anticolonial protests to the marches that helped bring down the Suharto dictatorship and the recent protests against new labour legislation reforms. But we can only uncover these stories if we refuse to be satisfied with canons and official lists. Luckily, this is precisely what historians of gender do best.  


The featured image shows part of the cover of the 1946 edition of Buiten het gareel, whose cover art was designed by the feminist artist Nola Hatterman, reproduced with kind permission of the artist’s estate.

  1. Agus Suwignyo, ‘The Making of Politically Conscious Indonesian Teachers in Public Schools, 1930-42′, Southeast Asian Studies, 3, no. 1 (2014), 119–49. []
  2. Rachel Leow, ‘Age as a Category of Gender Analysis: Servant Girls, Modern Girls, and Gender in Southeast Asia‘, The Journal of Asian Studies, 71, no. 4 (2012), 975–90, at 976. []
  3. Ki Hadjar Dewantara, ‘Some Aspects of National Education and the Taman Siswa Institute of Yogyakarta‘, trans. Ruth T. McVey, Indonesia 4 (1967), 150–68. []
  4. Wanita Taman-Siswa Djakarta, ‘Dimanakah tempat perempoean, di roemah tangga atau masjarakat?’ [Where is a Woman’s Place, in the Household or in Society?], Poesara, 4, no. 9 (1934), 122–24; Nji Sri Mangoensarkoro, ‘So’al Polygami’ [The Issue of Polygamy], Poesara, 4, no. 1 (1934), 138–39; Nji Soediro, ‘Perempoean dan kesosialan’ [Women and the Social World], Poesara, 4, no. 15 (1934), 198–99. []

Published by

Kirsten Kamphuis

She is a junior researcher at the Cluster of Excellence Religion and Politics at Münster University. She holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence and was an Affiliated Fellow at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV). She is currently working on a book about girls’ education in colonial Indonesia, as well as a project on women’s work and religion in the young Indonesian Republic. Her broader research interests include the history of childhood and youth and comparative histories of Southeast Asia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.