Fea­ture Story

The guid­ing prin­ci­ple of In­done­sia's mar­riage law is monogamy – one man with one wife – but polygamy is still tol­er­ated un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances.

Indonesia Expat - - CONTENTS - BY KEIMMY XU

Polygamy is Still Tol­er­ated in In­done­sia, Ad­vo­cates and Ac­tivists Speak Out

Aman, who prefers to re­main anony­mous, go­ing only by the name of Agung, owns a cloth­ing shop in North

Jakarta. In the store, two po­lite women in hi­jabs oc­cupy the front desk, while Agung takes in­ven­tory in the back. “They are both my wives,” ex­plains Agung with­out look­ing away from a stack of T-shirts. “We work here to­gether while [our] kids are at school. Some­times one of us stays home while the other [two] come [into the shop].” Agung and his two wives prac­tise polygamy.

The mar­riage prac­tice of polygamy has been hotly de­bated in In­done­sia for years. Some con­sider it nor­mal for a man to take more than one spouse, while oth­ers see it as un­just be­hav­iour that un­der­mines women's rights ev­ery­where. Through­out In­done­sia's his­tory, male political lead­ers, in­flu­en­tial fig­ures, and even clergy have adopted the tra­di­tion; in­clud­ing the na­tion's first pres­i­dent, Sukarno, who took more than five wives.

With the his­tory of polygamy in In­done­sia in mind, academics be­lieve the prac­tice is rel­e­vant to life and cul­ture in the na­tion as we see it to­day. Is­lam con­sid­ers polygamy as ‘mubah', which means it's not tech­ni­cally pro­hib­ited, but not re­ally rec­om­mended ei­ther. Religious law man­dates that a Mus­lim man is al­lowed to have up to four wives, so long as he is able to treat them all fairly. This, of course, is a sub­jec­tive rule up for in­ter­pre­ta­tion. For ac­tivists, it's an egre­gious am­bi­gu­ity that war­rants fur­ther scru­tiny.

Prophet Muham­mad ( be­lieved to be Is­lam's fi­nal prophet) adopted polygamy dur­ing the last eight years of his life. Ac­cord­ing to the Is­lamic scholar Ibn al-At­sir, polygamy was used by Muham­mad as a strat­egy to im­prove a woman's so­cial po­si­tion in the Arab feu­dal sys­tem. Dur­ing the sev­enth cen­tury AD, women and wid­ows had low so­cial sta­tus in so­ci­ety, and men were al­lowed to marry as many times as they wanted.

As the story goes, prophet Muham­mad started to crit­i­cize the ar­bi­trary be­hav­iour, and soon re­stricted the rules of polygamy. Muham­mad asked his friends with sev­eral wives to di­vorce some of them, and just keep four.

If we look back to the eighth and tenth cen­turies, be­fore Is­lam was in­tro­duced in In­done­sia, most of the kings of an­cient Mataram (the fa­mous Hindu–Bud­dhist king­dom in Cen­tral Java) took more than one wife as well. Polygamy to­day is pro­hib­ited in Hin­duism, ac­cord­ing to scrip­tures, and academics be­lieve the prac­tice was only used as a political tac­tic at the time. In­done­sia's polygamy is­sues are con­tro­ver­sial to say the least. In 2003, high-pro­file Ja­vanese restau­ra­teur Puspo War­doyo took four wives. He then in­sti­tuted an event called the Polygamy Award at Ho­tel Aryaduta in Jakarta. This event aimed to pro­mote trans­par­ent polygamy and to rec­og­nize men who suc­cess­fully ap­plied polygamy in their fam­i­lies. The event at­tracted a tidal wave of pub­lic at­ten­tion, and quickly be­came one of the high­est trend­ing top­ics in the me­dia at the time.

Apart from hun­dreds of in­vi­tees, pro­test­ers from var­i­ous or­ga­ni­za­tions across In­done­sia also at­tended the event. The In­done­sian Women's As­so­ci­a­tion spoke out against this event and polygamy in In­done­sia at large, claim­ing the cus­tom pro­motes vi­o­lence against women.

Polygamy flared up as a hot is­sue in 2009 due to the in­cep­tion of the na­tion's ‘Global Ikhlwan' polygamy club. The club orig­i­nated in Malaysia, and has gar­nered more than 300 mem­bers in South­east Asia to date. It was of­fi­cially es­tab­lished in Ban­dung with 38 mem­bers that year.

The club once again spurred con­tro­ver­sial de­bate among sev­eral or­ga­ni­za­tions. In­done­sia's high­est Is­lamic cler­i­cal body Ma­jelis Ulama In­done­sia (MUI), was asked to ban the club. How­ever, MUI re­sponded to pub­lic out­cry, say­ing that In­done­sia is a demo­cratic coun­try, where any­one has the right to set up an or­ga­ni­za­tion so long as it causes no so­ci­etal harm.

In July 2015, the de­fense min­istry is­sued a cir­cu­lar let­ter stat­ing civil ser­vants were al­lowed to have more than one wife un­der cer­tain con­di­tions in In­done­sia. This de­ci­sion re­ceived a slew of crit­i­cism from ac­tivists and the me­dia. The min­istry re­sponded, say­ing the de­cree was in fact meant to dis­cour­age of­fi­cials from polygamy. As the con­di­tions were ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to ful­fil, of­fi­cials wouldn't want to find them­selves in breach of the law, said the min­istry.

In or­der to have more than one wife, the civil ser­vant must sub­mit a state­ment from his wife or wives. He must also be found in sta­ble fi­nan­cial con­di­tion to sup­port all of his wives and chil­dren un­der one roof. If a po­lyg­a­mist em­ployee didn't meet all the re­quire­ments, he would be con­victed in a court of law, and be fired from his po­si­tion.

Through­out In­done­sia's his­tory, male political lead­ers, in­flu­en­tial fig­ures, and even clergy have adopted the tra­di­tion; in­clud­ing the na­tion's first pres­i­dent, Sukarno, who took more than five wives.

Again in 2015, In­done­sia was shocked when yet an­other polygamy club cropped up. The com­mu­nity known as Fo­rum Kelu­arga Poligami Sak­i­nah (Sak­i­nah Polyg­a­mous Fam­ily Fo­rum in English) be­gan as a What­sApp mes­sag­ing group. The cha­t­room acted as a so­cial shar­ing space for polyg­a­mous fam­i­lies. It wasn't long be­fore it be­came a full-fledged or­ga­ni­za­tion. Since its in­cep­tion, the group has grown big­ger in In­done­sia, and re­cently held a meet­ing with around 270 mem­bers in Su­men­dang, West Java. This group aims to dis­cuss ob­sta­cles faced by In­done­sia's polyg­a­mous fam­i­lies, and build a plan to file a ju­di­cial re­view of In­done­sia's of­fi­cial mar­riage law from 1974.

Fo­rum Kelu­arga Poligami Sak­i­nah also be­lieves In­done­sia's reg­u­la­tions com­pli­cate the prac­tice of polygamy. The guid­ing prin­ci­ple of In­done­sia's mar­riage law is monogamy – one man and one wife. Polygamy is tol­er­ated but con­trolled un­der cer­tain con­di­tions. Ac­cord­ing to the 1974 mar­riage law, per­mis­sion to have more than one wife is granted by the courts only if the ap­pli­cant's wife is “un­able to per­form her duty as a wife”, suf­fers from phys­i­cal de­fects or an in­cur­able dis­ease, or is in­ca­pable of pro­duc­ing off­spring.

To­day, there are no of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics on how many peo­ple in In­done­sia are polyg­a­mous due to a high num­ber of un­reg­is­tered mar­riages. Most polyg­a­mous fam­i­lies are formed by men through il­le­gal or un­reg­is­tered mar­riages.

“The im­por­tant [thing] is that we love each other,” says Agung, with a smile at the back of his cloth­ing shop. “Our life works for us. That is all we care [about].”

Po­lyg­a­mist Syech Puji (43) dur­ing his wed­ding cer­e­mony to mi­nor,

Ulfa (12) in 2008. Jane Sha­lakhova (from left), Adam Lyons and Brooke Shedd have found hap­pi­ness as a “throu­ple” in Los An­ge­les. (Im­age cour­tesy of NY Daily News)

Po­lyg­a­mist Narjo fails in his bid to woo 17-year- old as his 10th wife (Im­age cour­tesy of Co­conuts Jakarta)

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