Law, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

29 November 2017

Polygamy, both legal and illegal, is shunned by the majority of Indonesians. The time to criminalise it completely has arrived, Nina Nurmila writes.

For over 40 years polygamy has been legally restricted in Indonesia. It is time that the country joined other Muslim majority nations like Turkey and Tunisia in outlawing it completely.

Polygamy remains a controversial issue for Indonesians and has seen a growing debate in recent years fuelled by cases of high profile Muslim preachers, celebrities and others who’ve made the media headlines either as proponents or victims of the practice.

Examples include the launch in April of AyoPoligami, a match-making website for married men looking for additional wives, and a viral video posted in October by popular preacher Arifin Ilham, who is a proponent of the practice. The video shows Ilham and his three wives together in happy scenes, sharing activities such as joint meals, horse riding, archery, and listening to his preaching.

In my earlier work, I categorised Indonesian Muslims in their attitudes towards polygamy into three groups. The first group is comprised of those like Ilham, who see it as part of Islamic Sharia law and as an act recommended by the Prophet Muhammad.

The majority of Indonesian Muslims are in the second, middle group, which believes that polygamy is permitted only after fulfilling several requirements – mainly ‘justice’ towards all the wives. This requirement is commonly understood to mean fair and equitable emotional and material treatment of all the wives and their respective children and is represented in the Indonesian Marriage Law of 1974.

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The third group are mainly feminist scholars and activists who believe that it should be prohibited because the legal requirement of ‘justice’ in a polygamous marriage is almost impossible to achieve in practice.

The 1974 law stipulates that in principle marriage is monogamous, and that polygamous marriage is allowed only after being permitted by the Religious Court. Such permission is only to be granted on the conditions that the wife cannot do her duties as a wife; has an irrecoverable illness; or cannot bear children.

Moreover, the applicant will only be given permission after: obtaining consent from the existing wife/wives; providing assurance that he can financially support all his wives and children; and demonstrating that the he can treat his wives and children justly.

In Indonesian society, there have been many ups and downs in the debate on polygamy, which is periodically reinvigorated by prominent cases in the media. My own interest in the topic began in 2000 when a rich restaurateur with four wives, Puspo Wardoyo, promoted the “beauty of polygamy” – also the title of one of several books he sponsored on the issue. Wardoyo went as far as to give awards to men whom he considered successful in their polygamous marriages.

Later, the secret polygamous marriage of famous preacher Abdullah Gymnastiar (Aa Gym) was exposed by the media and caused a national scandal. Despite his careful construction of an argument for women to accept polygamy, claiming it as part of Sharia and that it was better than committing zina (adultery), Aa Gym suffered a boycott by his followers, who were mainly women.

This case revealed the strong negative attitudes of Indonesian Muslims towards polygamy. This is supported by a recent survey conducted on 1200 young Indonesian Muslim professionals by the Alvara Research Centre. The survey shows that the majority of respondents (52.9 per cent) saw polygamy as morally wrong, a minority (6.9 per cent) were undecided, and the rest (40.2 per cent) did not consider polygamy to be immoral. This last cohort likely belongs to the first and the second groups I’ve described above, which see polygamy as part of Sharia and permitted under certain conditions.

Today, the high number of users of the AyoPoligami website, together with the popularity of Ilham’s video, is being interpreted as renewed support for polygamy. I disagree with this interpretation for at least three reasons.

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First, many visit these websites just for amusement or out of curiosity. Second, there is still a significant proportion of Indonesians who are either not aware of, or care little about, what occurs in online media. Third, feminists and activists are successfully countering this ‘promotion’ of polygamy by arguing for monogamous marriage and highlighting that polygamy often involves violence against women.

The curiosity about online supporters of polygamy cannot be compared to the backlash against Aa Gym’s polygamous marriage, which led countless followers and visitors to the preacher’s mosque complex to abandon him in droves.

Nonetheless, in reality, many Indonesians still practice polygamy secretly and illegally, without obtaining permission from the Religious Court. This has resulted in injustice towards women who cannot claim their rights due to the illegal nature of their marriage.

My research reveals that polygamous marriages often lead to jealousy, tensions and quarrels among the wives, who spend their lives in misery. More alarmingly, it also shows that this family type is associated with multiple forms of violence against women.

The legal, conditional form of polygamy in Indonesia does not work. It harms the women involved and most Indonesians reject the views of its champions. It’s time for the government to amend the Indonesian Marriage Law to clearly prohibit polygamy and give it the strong stigma of illegality so that the practice can be gradually eliminated entirely.

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