Asia: Debate heats up over return of polygamy

JAKARTA–Agus Subekti, 46, lives in Kebumen in Central Java, with his two wives, four children and a son-in-law.

During a visit by this reporter, his 2-year-old daughter, Fortuna, demanded a hug from “Mama,” Agus’ wife, Yunani, 43. Fortuna seemed content, humming a little song, perched on Yunani’s lap.

“This baby is actually my other wife’s daughter. We all live together under one roof. Everyone is treated equally,” said Agus, who runs a roof tile manufacture and retail business with an annual turnover of about 2.5 billion rupiah (27.5 million yen).

The Agus family is a typical example of a resurging trend toward polygamy in Indonesia. But not all are welcoming the move-in fact, many are protesting the return of what they see as “slavery.”

Agus married his first wife in 1980. In 1994, when his business took off, Agus took a second wife, Sri Hidayati, 31, “in accordance with the Islamic teachings,” he said. Sri used to work at a hair salon that his first wife managed. The whole family discussed whether to permit him to take another wife.

Agus said: “It is important to keep everything out in the open. No secrets.”

He admitted that he had cheated on his first wife once the money started coming in.

Yunani had this to say: “With an official marriage, I don’t have to worry about my husband cheating on me or coming home with a (sexually transmitted) disease.”

Sri said: “My husband treats us both equally. To follow in the tradition of polygamy is the pride for us Muslims.”

The household will welcome his third wife by the end of this year.

Indonesia has a population exceeding 210 million, and 90 percent of the population follow Islam. It is the largest Muslim nation in the world.

In Indonesia, most marriages are monogamous. But the marriage law does not prohibit polygamy for Muslims. The Islamic law allows a man to have up to four wives-a custom based on the example of the Prophet Muhammad who practiced polygamy.

Polygamous marriage is permitted by religious courts after the husband obtains the consent of his existing wives.

However, modern Indonesians are divided over the interpretation of Islamic teachings. Some say that the tradition of men taking multiple wives should be the exception, rather than the norm, and permitted only when the second or subsequent wives are widows. On the other hand, there is the school of thought that polygamy is an Islamic ideal, and there are many Islamic clerics who advocate the practice of polygamy.

Indonesia’s founding father, former President Sukarno, was polygamous. He took multiple wives and lovers, including his Japanese wife, Devi. During his reign, his government officials and military officers followed suit, and the practice flourished.

However, things changed dramatically during the 32-year dictatorial rule by former President Suharto. Polygamy suddenly became taboo. Spurred by Suharto’s influential wife, Tien, the regime passed a government ordinance that effectively prohibited civil servants and the military officers from taking multiple wives.

When Suharto was ousted from the presidency in 1998, polygamy suddenly became popular again.

According to Indonesia’s Ministry of Religion, of the 1.96 million marriage registrations by Muslims that took place last year, only 809 were polygamous. However, an adviser to the ministry, Siti Musda Mulya, pointed out: “In reality, most marriages take place without making registrations. The number of polygamous marriages is on the rise.”

A restaurateur made a recent splash with his flashy pro-polygamy message. Puspo Wardoyo, 49, is the owner of the Wong Solo Indonesian-style grilled chicken restaurant chain. Puspo has four wives.

Puspo founded the “Polygamy Award” two years ago for polygamists who have established happy households. More than 300 men, including Agus, have received the award so far.

Puspo said: “Every Muslim who finds himself financially capable has a duty to take on more wives.”

His chain is a major franchise with 54 outlets nationwide. The walls of his restaurants feature posters of himself and his four wives. On the menu are “Polygamy juice” and “Polygamy stir fry.”

Puspo says: “There are too many cases where men practice polygamy on the sly, or they don’t obey the rule of treating wives equally-financially and sexually. I came up with the award to promote correct polygamy-to give people a chance to learn about the way it should be.”

Puspo now has plans to publish a tabloid devoted to polygamy. His efforts are earning him support from conservative circles led by Islamic leaders.

On the other hand, his flamboyant pro-polygamy approach has also drawn much criticism, especially from women. When the convention of Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Islamic organization in the country with 40 million members, was held last Nov. 28 in Central Java, lunch boxes from Wong Solo were distributed. Many participants-mostly from the women’s division-refused to receive them. The boycott was led by former President Abdurrahman Wahid’s wife, Sinta Nuriyah.

An outraged Sinta said: “Polygamy is the same as slavery. How dare they order lunch from a restaurant that shamelessly promotes polygamy.”

Meanwhile, a major incident related to the polygamy issue unfolded during last year’s presidential election. Then Vice President Hamza Haz, who was a presidential candidate, appeared on a TV program in May. He was challenged on air by a female college student: “How many wives do you have?”

He answered, “It’s all there in my career record.”

The student asked, “So, you mean, two?”

However, the media had widely reported that he actually had three wives. Wherever the candidate went, he was hounded with similar questions, and each time, he was chided by television and newspaper reporters. His popularity ratings dropped and never recovered. He was defeated by a big margin in the presidential election.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Asahi Shimbun, Japan
Oct. 8, 2005
Takeshi Fujutani
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday October 10, 2005.
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