Feminism in N.H. Dini's Pada Sebuah Kapal

Feminism has been one of the sentimental movements in Indonesia since more than a hundred years ago. There were several iconic figures for this movement, such as Martha Christina Tiahahu, Raden Ayu Ageng Serang, and the heroic female-fighter, Raden Ajeng Kartini. Those three figures, who fought for women’s rights, were from the classic period. Martha Christina Tiahahu and Raden Ayu Ageng Serang were Indonesian-independent fighters, while Raden Ajeng Kartini was an education-for-women fighter. In the field of literature, there was also a fighter – she was the talented and the well-known Indonesian author, NH Dini. Different with modern feminism authors, such as Ayu Utami and Djenar Maesa Ayu whose writing style is more likely to be vulgar, NH Dini was still shy in presenting what was desired and felt by women. Her shyness in writing, however, created a vivid image of gentle but stubborn women who, somehow, became an ideal image of Indonesian women.  

In this essay, one of NH Dini’s novels entitled Pada Sebuah Kapal (English: On a Ship) will be summarized, reviewed, and discussed. Pada Sebuah Kapal is a novel published in 1672 by Gramedia Pustaka. The novel is the reflection of NH Dini’s life story as for the plot, characters, and settings of place are similar to her personal life. NH Dini herself is a feminist and realist Indonesian author of the 66’s batch, who is originally from Semarang.  

The discussion in this essay will be focused on feminism as for NH Dini was known for her feminism ideas, plus Pada Sebuah Kapal is famously condensed with such movement.  


With the tranquility of a woman, NH Dini was able to bring the struggle and the uprising of women in the search for identity and freedom. Although only a slight freedom acquired, the main character in Pada Sebuah Kapal, Sri, appears with persistent fight. The story tells about a life journey of a woman who searches for happiness, freedom, and compassion that she deserves to get. Before discussing, here is a brief summary of the story.

Pada Sebuah Kapal tells the story of an unhappy household life. The husband does not treat his wife properly, therefore, his wife conducts an affair with a man who faces the same problem – namely unhappy in his household. Sri, the main character, is an active, young, stubborn, and ambitious girl whose father died when she was thirteen years old. She is a dancer who works as an announcer at Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) in Semarang. After three years of working as an announcer, she gets bored with the job, then she applies to become a stewardess in Jakarta. Unfortunately, her participation in the selection should be stopped because it turns out that she is not medically qualified. Later, Sri receives an offer to become a journalist at a magazine company, but she declines, because she is more interested in being an RRI broadcaster in Jakarta. On her seventh month of becoming a radio announcer in Jakarta, her mother dies.

Among many men who express their love to her, Sri settles her heart on a young pilot named Saputro. Their love affair becomes serious that they are planning to get married soon. Surprisingly, a while before they get married, Saputro reportedly crashes his plane and dies. Sri is very sad and heartbroken knowing the fact that her loved one has died. Then, she decides to go somewhere else to calm herself down. She takes a five-month break from work and stays in Jogja. Other men try to approach her. They are Yus and Carl. However, the two men were not able to make Sri forget the shadow of Saputro. Then, there is a French diplomat named Charles Vincent whom Sri met in Jakarta. Charles is then able to make Sri fall in love. His gentle and considerate personality makes her want to have a serious relationship. Although her family do not give their support, Sri remains married to Charles. What has been advised by her family actually happens. After getting married, Charles’ attitude change completely. He is no longer a gentle and considerate, but selfish, rude, harsh man. Their marriage was unhappy. Quarrels happen between them almost every day and continue until the birth of their first child.

One time Charles gets off from work, then the family uses this opportunity to take a vacation. Strangely they do not use the same transportation. Charles travels by an airplane, while Sri and their child travels by a ship. Well, that's where the forbidden relationship between Sri and the ship captain named Michel occurs. It turns out they have the same unhappy condition in their households. Quietly, Sri and Michel remained in a relationship in secret. Their relationship continues when Charles is assigned to Japan. Sri’s domestic life in Japan does not improve, then she eventually files for divorce on Charles, however, her lawsuit is not approved by her husband. As a result, Sri’s affair with Michel deepens. Michel even begs his superiors to assign him to Japan – so that he can be close to Sri. After finishes serving in Japan, Charles returns to his duty in France. Michel, then, also asks his boss to cancel his duties in Yokohama and to replace his duties as a sailor in the shipping area of ​​France. The affair between Sri with Michel intensifies since then because they really love each other.

Before discussing about feminism in Pada Sebuah Kapal, first we have to know the definition of feminism itself. British suffragist and journalist, Rebecca West, famously says, "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." In other words, feminism is a commitment to achieving the equality of the sexes. This radical movement is not exclusive to women: men, while benefiting from being the dominant sex, also have a stake in overcoming the restrictive roles that take their human rights. In another way, Mary Wollstone Craft, who is well known as the founder of feminism, says that woman have their own right especially in education.

According to Mary’s argument we can see in Pada Sebuah Kapal that this novel is a feminism novel as it talks about a dancer woman who is eager for knowledge, experiences, and education.

“aku tidak akan melupakan sore itu. Siang-siang aku sudah mandi. Ayahku membawaku ke gedung kecil di samping sekolahku.......” (Page 14)

“di kelas aku memilih duduk di baris belakang, karena aku tidak suka mendapat giliran lebih dulu dari soal-soal yang diberikan oleh guru. Tetapi disekolah tari itu sejak dari hari pertama aku menempati kelompok yang terdepan. Ada semacam dorongan aneh bagiku” (page 15)

From the two quotes above we can see that Sri likes to study. Although she is not so eager to study the courses in school, instead, she is ambitious to learn to dance. We know that when we talk about studying or learning, it is not only about education in formal school but also in informal places.

When Sri graduates from Senior High School, she does not continue her education to college, but she decides to apply to work as an announcer at Radio Republik Indonesia in Semarang. She decides so because she does not have money to enter college and her school marks are not so good. Therefore, she decides to work. Although she does not go to college, she studies in other places. She often goes to library to learn English because she thinks that language is a bridge to succeed in any kind of field.

The other type of feminism showed in this novel is women have the right to show their argument and to prove that she can do things by herself.

“sepuluh hari aku mengatur rumah, yang untuk pertama kalinya bisa kusebut rumahku karena aku yang mengaturnya..... ” (Page 239)

The quote above is a bit when Sri cleans and decorates her house by herself. Before doing it, her husband, Charles, asks her to ask Monique’s help, but she doesn’t do it. It signifies that Sri wants to do things by herself as long as she is able to do it, that she does not need any help. Sri thinks that she can only own things when she herself is the one who takes care of it. She has her own argument, style and creativity. She just needs her husband to believe in her.

However, in this novel, NH Dini shows us that women also have limitations. Women cannot do the heavy jobs that men do. From this situation, NH Dini wants to tell us that women still need man, no matter how strong and tough they are.  NH Dini also tries to share the idea that women need to be protected and treated well, too. In this novel, Sri is not treated well by her husband. As a result, she turns away from her husband and looks for the one who can treat her well – something precious she does not get in her marriage.

Besides supporting woman emancipation, NH Dini also presents a negative side of it in this novel. Women more likely want to obtain freedom and equality up to the way of fulfilling their biological needs. They want to have freedom in having sex with the ones they love as for it is their right. This also happens to Sri. She has sex with men, who are not her husband, to express her love. Ironically, the tone in the novel literally beckons that Sri’s behavior in fulfilling her biological need is correct. Another negative side of women emancipation reflected in this novel is the fact that it is hard to know women’s limitation when they are too ambitious to achieve things. When the line is crossed, women show themselves as a selfish and material-concerned person. As a result, women can eliminate their maternal side.

Discussing about cultural influences, this novel actually brings out Indonesian ethnical culture, which is Javanese, as the main culture influence. Sri is a traditional dancer who concerns so much about her performance on stage. She also learns to play Gamelan and sings Javanese traditional songs. Her mother is a Batik artist. His father loves to learn about traditional stuffs, including painting. Javanese culture is reflected in the characterization of Sri. However, besides being traditional and cultural, Sri also mixes modern culture in her personality. According to the Javanese culture, women should stay at home and focus on taking care of the household. However, Sri believes that women should be active and eager to learn about a lot of things, instead of just being a passive housewife. It can be seen from how she is still eager to be active in dancing although her husband restricts her and demands that she should stay at home. Sri is so much influenced by the feminist movement. Moreover, after getting married, she moves from Indonesia to the other countries, such as Japan and French, so that those countries’ cultures (that more likely implore women’s emancipation) influence her attitude and way of thinking towards how to live her life as a wife.

I, as the writer of this essay, agree with feminism as what is reflected in this novel Pada Sebuah Kapal. I support all kinds of effort to fulfill women’s rights because I believe that basically everyone is equal, no matter what the gender is. However, there are limitations, as what NH Dini tries to say through her writing, that although women have a full right to obtain freedom, they still have things that they cannot do by themselves. Women need men to complete the missing puzzle. Therefore, while trying to obtain equality, women should also realize where they belong and what duties to complete. Besides fighting for their rights, women should fulfill their obligations too. In that way, women can be responsibly free and independent.