Some local leaders and authorities of West Sumatera keep urging the national government (Home Affairs Ministry) to commemorate Roehana Koeddoes and thus make her work more meaningful by honoring her with the title of national hero. The earlier proposal of the local government of West Sumatra, along with others important hero, such as M Natsir, M Djamil, Syariah Leman and Siti Manggopoh, did not a get response. Roehana Koeddoes’ legacy in deconstructing the Puritan concept of women in Indonesia and rebuilding a new image has been alive for more than a decade in the heart of West Sumatran people. It is ironic that Suhartinah, the wife of former president Suharto, who never made an effort to enlighten women, nor was nominated by any group or local government, had been granted the honor of national hero. The honor is nearly impossible to acquire by genuine hero.

Aside from providing education on literacy and handicraft skills to women, Roehana also initiated critical dialogs through her newspaper Soenting Melajoe. The newspaper was the first women’s newspaper in the nation, contained various discussions of women’s issues that had never been discussed before in a critical way, such as early marriage, the role of women in public, and various forms of criticism of Dutch imperialism. Through Soenting Melajoe, Roehana Koeddoes not only enlightened women in West Sumatra but also many men and women in the whole nation. To honor her legacy, many groups in West Sumatra commemorated her name in various ways, from making her name as a brand of cassava cracker (kripik balado) to naming streets and buildings for her.

It is normal that the consignment of honor of national hero or various other types of honors, such as Bintang Mahaputra, Bintang Gerilya, or other honorary is corrupt and political. Many important figures that have shown their great contribution during the revolution or other type of changes to this nation do not get adequate recognition. One source of the problem arises from the National Hero Act, Perpu (the Executive Order No. 33/1964). Perpu defines hero as an “Indonesian citizens who have shown their accomplishment, who struggled for the nation in their life, and were never stained in their lifetime by any act that could impair the values of their accomplishment.” The phrase “never stained” of this Executive Order offers the opportunity to any government officials to slander any candidates. If a pioneer of revolution happened to have a great interest in cockfights, would that stain his/her heroism? Heroism arises from the quality of impact caused by professional accomplishment. In order to avoid “stained hero” status, many countries have concealed private life information of their hero or only provided information on hero’s professional life.

The “unstained” demand should have been removed from the Perpu. Who would have the authority or legitimacy to declare that an individual was stained or unstained? Pers, the people, the government or a few assailant government officials? Because of the ambiguity of the definition of national hero, it’s rather futile for a genuine hero to acquire the title of national hero. As a result, the historical map of Indonesia will be filled with heros like Habibie and his wife or Suharto and his wife. The more amusing thing is that when Megawati became president she conferred an honor on her own father in-law the Bintang Mahaputra Nararya, for no obvious reason. If someone had struggled and succeed in nailing their name in the nation’s history or in changing the nation’s life, the result of these changes will not be influenced by any act of the actor. Besides, in most cases, if someone becomes a hero, it did not happen by a fortuitous case but because she or he acquired some superiority compared to common people. Roehana Koeddoes had polished her heroic notion when she was 8 years old. A hero is a distinctive individual who possess oddness, exceptional, and yet rare. If the course to be a genuine hero can be pursued through common course, how beautiful the life could be, since there is so many people who want to be hero.

Poor appreciation of the intellectual struggle

The poor appreciation of intellectual struggle in Indonesia has contributed to the ambiguous definition of national hero. The definition of national hero is confined solely to bloody action. Struggles, changes, and deconstruction efforts have been diminished and only understood as violence efforts, dying in the hands of Dutch imperialist, Japanese imperialist, or PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) allegedly.  If only blood can create changes to this government that is swamped with great affliction, how many gallons of blood is needed? It is tragic that in this modern century we still definite respect and dignity with guns, knifes, or daggers (celurit). Although history has proven that revolution is often triggered by two things, violence and critical thought, changes can only be achieved through peaceful negotiation. Therefore, it is not right if the heroism of R.A. Kartini is still polemic because she used her pen to advocate her liberal ideas, instead of picking up a gun. On the other hand, the appeal of the local government of West Sumatera to the Home Affairs Ministry on behalf of Roehana Koeddoes was denied with no stated reason.

The role of Roehana Koeddoes is more significant and grounded than R.A. Kartini’s.  R.A Kartini’s letters tend to be elite. There is not much information on the interaction of R.A Kartini with common people. R.A. Kartini’s thoughts were only known among royal families and her Dutch friends. On the other hand, in order to advocate her mission, Roehana Koeddoes and her husband were forced to leave her homeland Kotogadang because the spread of people’s hatred against her liberal mission was unbearable. A couple years after she left, Roehana went back to Kotogadang because of her students’ plea to be taught by her again. Roehana also possessed mature thoughts and politics. She understood that her mission would keep facing obstacles and conflict if she could not gain trust and blessing from the elders. Before she began her school, Roehana invited the elders and explained that her mission was not to change women from their natural obligations (kodrat) but to enhance their kodrat. Because of her commitment and hard work, in 1915 the school of Handcraft Amai Setia (KAS), the school that she founded, had received legal recognition from the Dutch government. In 1917, Roehana founded Roehana School in Bukittinggi, a school for women and men.

The essence of heroism

Roehana Koeddoes was born in Kotogadang, Sumatera Barat (1884-1972). She lived in the same era as R.A. Kartini but there is no adequate information that shows direct interaction between these two leaders. Some of the issues that concerned R.A. Kartini also became topics of Soenting Melajoe, the first women’s newspaper in the nation founded by Roehana Koeddoes.  The fact that Roehana is less known than R.A Kartini, despite her great influence and legacy to Indonesian women, is caused by the level of attachment between the two leaders with the ruler. R.A Kartini lived in Java– the center of happening in the Dutch’s colonyshe also came from the royal family which had close ties to the Dutch people whom she worshiped. On the other hand, Roehana Koeddoes was not only living outside Java (West Sumatera) but she did not make friend with Dutch people. In fact, Roehana and her husband were allegedly involved in an underground movement against Dutch imperialism.  The geographical, social class, and life philosophy differences between R.A. Kartini and Roehana seem to be the cause of the historical bias. Although, I am sure Roehana gained far greater inner satisfaction compared to R.A Kartini. Roehana had a long life. She died at 88 years old. She not only kept struggling until her very end but she also witnessed the revealing truth of her childhood dream.

A great nation is a nation that can respect its heros. This is not an empty phrase. It makes valid nation indentity, civilization, and its history. To sustain its dignity, every nation needs to prove its existence in the present and the past. The greatness of a nation can be measured from the advancement of its people on human rights enforcement issues, technology, economy, governance, and the political system. To acknowledge Roehana Koeddoes as a hero would not only serve the interst of Roehana or serve the interest of the local government of West Sumatera government, but alo prove to the outside world that Indonesia is a great country which gave birth to many liberal leaders. Making Roehana Koeddoes known on a national scale would also give the opportunity to the international world to know the history of the Indonesian women’s movement. In addition, introducing Roehana Koeddoes or other women’s heros to a national scale could provide the opportunity for the contemporary Indonesian feminists to learn the matureness of their pioneer.

To be granted the title of national hero is the simply not Roehana’s intention when she pursed her mission. She was born to be a hero for people and her nation. Besides, if the title of national hero is only worth a piece of trashy sculpture like the sculpture of W.R. Soepratman in Surabaya it would only be degrading the value of her legacy. Sadly, this nation never had put necessary fund to develop the legacy of its national heros. In most cases, if a leader is legally acknowledged as a national hero, the hero’s picture would be granted the right to be seen in the official history book. There is no other way to put the national hero closer to the child of the nation. Although we have at least 175 national heros, there is only one thing that our young generation could remember about some of them, their birthday and date when they died, and then only on exam day. When the exam day is passed, the memory of our young generation will also fade away.

Author details: Siti Nurjanah is Director Executive of CRCS.