A novelist, in Europe paid a political group in an African country to stage a coup d’état. The novelist carefully noted every aspect of the process of replacing those in power and wrote about it in a famous novel which was marketed and produced more than the cost of the coup. And you, sipping on your coffee in some little food stall after witnessing a fight between pedicab drivers and minivan drivers say bluntly: Ah, why isn’t the novelist interested in countries in Asia! Then you laugh to yourself, and grumble Why have we come to the point where a nightmare about blood has become the only dream that feels beautiful?
Maria Ullfah was the daughter of Kuningan regent R.A.A. Mohammad Achmad. Maria entered the Faculty of Law at the University of Leiden in 1929 and graduated in 1933.
A friend from the same faculty and boarding house, Siti Soendari (left), who was also the sister of Dr. Soetomo, followed by taking a Bachelor of Laws the following year. On her return to the Dutch East Indies, Maria Ullfah worked in the office of the Cirebon regency government, however, this was only to last several months because she chose to study German and government at the Muhammadiyah school in Batavia. It was probably here that Maria Ullfah’s involvement in the nationalist movement began.
The causes which Maria championed included a fair marriage law, which she proposed at the Third Women’s Congress. Maria then became the head of the Agency for the Protection of Indonesian Women in Marriage. Her goal was a marriage law which was based on the principle of equity of rights and responsibilities between men and women.
22 December was declared Women’s Day at the Third Women’s Congress which was held in Bandung from 23 to 27 July 1938. Women’s Day in 1953 was a gala celebration as it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first Women’s Congress. However, as a national day Women’s Day was not made a public holiday until 1959 with the release of Presidential Decree No. 316/1959.
Some of Maria Ullfah’s other important roles included the inclusion of human rights articles in the 1945 Constitution as it was being drafted by the Body Investigating Steps for Preparedness for Indonesian Independence (BPUPKI). Maria was one of its members. It was Maria who strongly protested when the early draft made no mention of human rights. Drs. Mohammad Hatta played the same role.
After independence, Maria Ullfah became Minister of Social Affairs in the Second Sjahrir Cabinet in 1946. It was under her stewardship that the Office of Workers’ Affairs was born which was the forerunner of today’s Ministry of Labor (@KemnakerRI). She was part of the fight for workers’ rights through her drafting of the social affairs law which aimed to improve the conditions of workers. This draft became law in 1948.
So it was that after this long record of nationalist struggle in 1959 Maria Ullfah proposed that Women’s Day on 22 December be made a national day. At the time Maria was Director of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet office during the administration of Prime Minister Juanda.
Her dream was simple, that women would always be aware of their responsibilities as mothers of the nation.
We relaxed in the front guestroom. My younger siblings who weren’t grown up yet, who still appeared so wild, now began to draw near and we talked a great deal, about Djakarta, about Semarang, and about cars. The conversation wasn’t boring, it made me happy and it usually carried on for a long time.
And at one point I asked, “How’s father’s health?”
Suddenly everyone went quiet; not one person was looking directly at me. Suddenly the animated joyful conversation was gone, replaced by an air of seriousness.
And I asked again, “How is father’s health?”
Carefully and slowly my sister answered, “We received the pills and the blanket you sent for father. I also received the money order and we used it to buy milk and eggs, just as you instructed.”
My wife and I listened silently. She continued, “I also collected the shirt for father from the post office. And I took the blanket, the shirt, and the pills to the hospital. But father said, ‘Just take them all back to the house.’ So I brought them home again.”
I was surprised and asked, “And the pills?”
“He has finished one container.”
I was pleased a little.
“And the milk and eggs?” I asked again.
“Father didn’t like them. ‘I’m bored with eggs and milk,’ he said.”
I was lost for words. I looked at my wife, but in her face, I did not find an answer. I glanced outside the house. I noticed the orange tree which father had long ago planted. It was dry now and almost dead.
“And father’s health?” I repeated my question.
My younger sister didn’t reply. Her eyes reddened with tears.
“Why don’t you answer me?” I asked fearfully.
“Yesterday and up to yesterday father just smiled, smiled a lot. But then, then…”
She was silent. I did not force her to continue what she was saying. I didn’t say anything either. Both of us sat for a time with our heads bowed. My youngest sister, who had just begun to speak to me, now wouldn’t say a word. The time was only just half-past twelve in the afternoon and the sound of frying could be heard clearly coming from the kitchen.
My younger sister continued, her voice still slow, foreboding and careful. “…and then this morning father wasn’t smiling anymore. His voice was weak and almost inaudible.” Her voice trailed away.
“And what did the doctor say?” I asked.
“The doctor has never said anything to us. There is just one doctor here. And there aren’t enough medicines.”
Then my younger brother, who by chance was home on leave with permission from his commander said, “I’ve discussed father’s illness with the doctor too. He said, ‘I already know about your father’s illness.’”
“Is that all he said?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s all. Then they told me to go home.”
The atmosphere turned serious once more. Everyone sat silently with their own feelings and their own thoughts. Then without realizing it, my younger sister changed the subject of the conversation to a new topic. She mentioned that my third younger sister, the one who was married, was currently in Blora too. Straight away I asked her where she was.
Her hand pointed to the door of one of the bedrooms. All eyes followed the direction she indicated. In my mind, I could see my sister’s face and I imagined she was thin. I knew it; she had to be sick. But I opened my mouth and said, “Tell her to come out.”
My younger sister went over to the door and opened it carefully. Every eye was on her. She disappeared into the room, then she emerged red-eyed and said, half crying, “She’s still asleep.”
We talked about other things. But the image of my sick younger sister filled my mind. It was because of her I wrote the letter to my father, the unpleasant letter, for allowing her to become sick. But at the time I was still in jail. My father had replied:
Yes, my child, throughout my life of fifty-six years I have realized that people’s efforts and means are very limited. For my part, I wouldn’t have allowed your sister to become ill if only I had some power over people’s fates. She became sick when she was detained by the red militia in an area that was swampy, an area rife with malaria. And maybe you can understand yourself the situation with medicines in a war zone, and especially if you yourself are not a soldier.
That reply melted my anger. The question had been clear in my heart, “Did I sin by writing that angry letter?” The answer had come back by itself, “Yes, you have sinned.” And it had been because of that answer I had felt up to this time that I had sinned. Before seeing father again. But that long wandering conversation had removed these terrible memories. I looked at my six younger siblings surrounding me, surrounding my wife and I, starting to be free of the atmosphere of seriousness, while I was still stuck with so many thoughts and memories pressing in.
I noticed my watch. We had been talking for an hour. Then looking at my smallest sister I said slowly, “Please look in on your big sister. Maybe she’s awake.”
She got up, went to the door and called out in her childish voice, “Sister, sister. Big brother’s here.”
She vanished into the bedroom.
No-one was paying much attention to her and the conversation broke out again. But when my smallest sister emerged, the conversation halted. She approached me and whispered, “Sister’s crying.”
I took a deep breath.
Slowly I stood up and went over to the bedroom. And there sprawled on the iron bed devoid of mosquito netting, half blanketed by a light cotton sheet, was my little sister, covering her eyes with her arm. I lifted her arm and I beheld two eyes looking up at me, red and moist. I hugged her. She started to cry and I too wept, and among the sobs, I could hear my own voice ask, “Why are you so thin?”
Her crying subsided and she composed herself, so she was calmer. And I did the same.
“I’ve been sick for a long time, brother,” I listened to her broken voice.
“Have you been to the doctor?” I asked, my voice cracking too.
“I’ve seen the doctor, but my condition just stays like this,” her voice still breaking.
“Maybe it would be better if you went to a large city. There are a lot of specialists there,” my voice still breaking.
There was just sobbing.
“Do you have any children, sister?”
“Where are they?”
Our crying had subsided, but my sister now broke out in tears again. She answered without emotion, “He passed away, brother. He’s not here anymore.”
She snatched back the arm I was holding and covered her eyes again. I took out my handkerchief and wiped the tears running down her face.
“What do you mean not here,” I asked.
“I gave birth at six months. He cried a lot. I could hear him crying. Then God took him back again.”
Once more I started to weep openly and she too sobbed uncontrollably. All I could hear now was the storm heaving in my chest. And all I could see was her thin body, the single cloth sheet, the small mattress covering only half the bed frame, and the iron and the bamboo slats protruding next to the mattress.
“You’re still young, little sister, you still have the chance to have another child,” I said to comfort her.
“Where’s your husband?”
“He’s doing training in Semarang, brother.”
Our crying, which had filled that room, now subsided and eventually died.
I straightened the blanket, kissed my younger sister on her cheek and I said, “Go to sleep.”
She took her arm away from her eyes. She was calm now. Slowly she closed her eyelids. Once more I kissed her on the cheeks, cheeks that had once been so full and which were now so drawn. Then I left the room.