Debating Polygamy’s Resurgence
Nov. 28, 2003
Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post Foreign Service
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday December 1, 2003
Indonesians Divided Over Meaning of Koran
JAKARTA, Indonesia — A suspicious cell-phone number on the family phone bill tipped off Titin Salpomiatin that her husband, Erlangga, was cheating on her.
When she confronted him, Erlangga claimed that the woman in question was just a friend. But a year later, he felt he could not hide the truth. He broke the news to Titin that he had taken a second wife and that they had a newborn baby.
“She was furious. She cried. She protested,” he recalled.
Erlangga, a personnel manager in a palm oil company who goes by one name, said he argued that the Koran allows him to have up to four wives. Titin recalled that she accused him of exploiting the Koran to justify his sexual wandering.
Today, he divides his time equally between Titin and his second wife. While he has two wives, Titin said, “I don’t feel that I have a husband.”
Titin and Erlangga, both 46, came of age at a time when the authoritarian government of President Suharto discouraged conservative expressions of Islam. Although polygamy is not illegal, Indonesia’s longtime president, under pressure from his wife, virtually banned civil servants from engaging in the practice in the early 1980s. Indonesia’s Islamic and general family codes also set strict conditions for polygamy, including permission from the first wife.
But today, five years after Suharto was forced out of office by mass protests, some Muslim activists are seeking to establish a society that follows traditional, conservative interpretations of the Koran, as well as to bring about Islamic law, or sharia.
High-profile polygamists are extolling the practice. Progressive clerics and feminists are countering with interpretations of the Koran that support equality of the sexes. An official in the religious affairs ministry is drafting an alternative Islamic family code that would outlaw polygamy and make it easier for women to get a divorce.
The debate is part of a broader struggle to define the role of Islam in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population.
No government agency accurately tracks polygamy rates. But ministry officials said many more men marry privately, in the presence of a Muslim cleric and witnesses, without seeking permission from an Islamic court, which would require permission from the first wife.
At the same time, counselors at women’s crisis centers report a rise in the number of women coming forward for help in dealing with polygamous marriages. Certainly, the practice is becoming more visible. The topic is increasingly in the news and debated on talk shows. The vice president, Hamzah Haz, openly acknowledges that he has three wives. The minister of cooperatives, Alimarwan Hanan, has two wives. President Megawati Sukarnoputri has not given her views publicly although her father, Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno, practiced polygamy; she is the daughter of his second wife.
In July, Puspo Wardoyo, an eccentric entrepreneur who owns a popular chain of chicken restaurants, elevated polygamy to new prominence when he staged his first annual Polygamy Awards. The marketing pro, who has boosted sales at his Ayam Bakar Wong Solo restaurants on the strength of the buzz about his four wives, handed out 90 statuettes and cash prizes to men from across the Indonesian archipelago who had at least two wives. Eleven had four.
“I want to spread the polygamy virus,” he said.
Sense of Betrayal
These days, Titin, who has a law degree that she has never used, draws support from friends. Many also have polygamous husbands, she said.
“I was very angry,” she acknowledged. But she stayed with Erlangga for the sake of their two children. He spends half the week with Titin, half the week with his second wife, Mardiana, in two small houses about four miles apart.
Titin and her friends commiserate with one another about their husbands’ use of religion to suit their sexual desires, and about how polygamy hurts their children, not just themselves. Titin’s daughter, Siti Iqlima, 9, often asks where her daddy is. Titin replies, “He’s gone out.” Her 19-year-old son knows the truth, but Titin said she will tell Siti only when she is older.
A petite, personable woman, Titin is distanced enough from the trauma to be philosophical. “I am facing a great dilemma,” she said during an interview at a Dunkin’ Donuts shop. “But I have to accept this dilemma in order to maintain my children.”
Her sense of betrayal is never far from the surface. “I can accept him, but with a lot of question marks and exclamation points and commas — never a period.”
Asked if her husband was a good Muslim, she paused. “I think he is a good Muslim, but he should appreciate his wife more,” she said. “Love cannot be divided. If you have only one wife, you will focus on her. What makes me saddest is wondering: When will I have a husband who is totally mine?”
Erlangga said he had never expected to have more than one wife, even though his father had three and his grandfather two. And he truly loved Titin, whom he had met in college and wed in 1983. But 13 years and two children later, he fell in love with Mardiana, now 37, who was a widow.
“It was a mix of passion, love and social responsibility,” he explained, sitting in a Pizza Hut restaurant in Jakarta one afternoon. “She is the type of person who needs protection.”
He feels that he is a better Muslim for helping a widow without financial means. He acknowledged that most women, Titin included, object to polygamy. But he said, “A woman should accept that it is part of the religious institution of marriage in Islam.”
A gregarious man who is also general secretary of the Islamic Students Alumni Association and was imprisoned from 1984 to 1990 for political activism, Erlangga said that in the days of Suharto, men took more than one wife but kept it hidden longer. “Now, it’s in the open,” he said. “Now there’s no fear.”
In 1983, Suharto issued a rule, still on the books, that requires civil servants wishing to take another wife to obtain permission from a superior, who must ascertain that the man has written consent from his first wife and has proved he can provide for all wives and children equally.
At the Islamic State Institute in Bandung during the Suharto era, only one among 400 lecturers admitted to having more than one wife. Today, at least 48 do, said Nurrohman, a researcher there.
Polygamy is mostly a lower- to lower-middle-class phenomenon. For middle-class women, especially those who are college-educated, the sense of humiliation is particularly acute if their husbands marry again.
That was the case with Ama, a lecturer at the prestigious Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, who spoke on condition that her full name not be used. She found out two years ago that her husband had another wife. At first, she was in shock. She did not eat for two days. She lost weight. “You look great,” said colleagues, unaware of the reason. She said she was livid when she found out that he had actually married in 1996, and had managed to keep that marriage from her for five years. “He stole five years of my life!” she exclaimed.
Eventually, she realized that he was not leaving that wife. Last month, she filed for divorce. But she is too embarrassed to tell people the reason why, she said.
Women who have accepted a polygamous mate often do so for financial reasons. Last year, Neneng, 23, a Jakarta housemaid, became the second wife of Makmur, 30, who drives a motorized rickshaw. Makmur’s other wife lives in a town in central Java.
“It is better being a second wife rather than staying single for my whole life,” she said. “At least I am economically secure now.”
‘Part of the Solution’
First of all, explained an Islamic cleric, settling into a folding chair, “Islam brings solutions to problems in society.”
Thus, said Irfan Awwas, executive director of the Indonesian Mujaheddin Council in Yogyakarta, “polygamy is part of the solution to society’s problems.”
Asserting that women outnumber men — and that a man’s sex drive, unlike a woman’s, lasts an entire lifetime — he said that polygamy allows men and women to fulfill their sexual desires without resorting to adultery.
Of course, he said, there are conditions, laid down in the Koran in the chapter on women, Verse 3. A man may take a second or third or fourth wife only if he is able to provide for each equally, he said.
He must strive for equality in the emotional realm too, but it is recognized that “love is beyond a man’s control,” Awwas said. So if he falls short, that is all right, he said.
But other scholars, such as Husain Mohammed, say they believe the Koran was meant to be interpreted in light of current societal conditions. Mohammed, who runs an Islamic research center in Cirebon, a town 120 miles east of Jakarta, is at the forefront of the movement in Indonesia working to reinterpret the Koran in a progressive manner. Today, he and his assistant are focusing on issues of religious tolerance, as well as abortion, inheritance, divorce and women’s leadership, emphasizing equality of the sexes.
Mohammed’s work is controversial in even the most moderate of mainstream Indonesian Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama, of which he is a senior member. During a conference this year in East Java, he asserted that women could become imams and lead prayers, an idea that provoked much dissent. Fellow clerics challenged him to defend his argument at a future conference.
It is true that the Koran, read literally, permits polygamy, given strict conditions, he said. But the text was written in the 7th century, when wars made many women widows, and polygamy in the Arab world was widespread. Today, he said, the Koran, read according to the principles of modern justice, bars polygamy.
The practice is accepted to varying degrees in Muslim countries, with many imposing conditions such as permission of the first wife or economic means to support two households. But Turkey and Tunisia have banned the practice outright.
In a dim office at the Department of Religious Affairs in Jakarta, Siti Musdah Mulia, an adviser on women’s empowerment to the minister, is drafting an alternative Islamic family law that would, among other things, ban polygamy. “A barbaric tradition,” she calls it. But she is facing an uphill battle.
“It is mission impossible,” said Nandi Naksabandi, the ministry’s director of research and legal drafting. “The majority of people in this ministry are conservative Muslims.” He said that to ban something “written clearly in the Koran goes against Islamic values.”
That is an argument Titin knows well. She and her female friends like to joke about how their men are always quoting the Koran and how they should make up their own verse. “If religion allowed us to take another husband, I would be the first person to do that!” she said, laughing. “But of course, the religion does not allow that.”
Special correspondent Noor Huda Ismail in Jakarta contributed to this report.
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