The latest name to shock the country’s feminists is the Indonesian Parliament’s deputy speaker, Zaenal Ma’arif, who is in strife with his Islamic Reform Star Party (PBR) after he married a second woman last week, a 48-year-old school teacher with three children.
As Mr Ma’arif rejected calls for his removal from Parliament, his party’s chairman, Bursah Syarnubi, told journalists that he personally was not against polygamy. But Mr Syarnubi said Mr Ma’arif “should have been more prudent by not publicising his second marriage because he is part of the leadership of the Parliament and the PBR”. The party will decide Mr Ma’arif’s future today.
Controversy about Indonesian men having more than one wife erupted in mid-December when popular and influential Muslim cleric Abdullah Gymnastiar shocked audiences on 150 local radio stations when he told them he had a younger, second wife.
Hundreds of women marched through Jakarta’s streets in rallies for and against multiple marriages. The reverberations spread to the presidential palace where President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he would consider expanding a law that prohibits some public servants from having several wives to cover everyone in the public sector, including soldiers and police. It is not known how many people this would affect as no government agency accurately tracks polygamy rates in the country of 210 million.
But government officials admit the practice is common, particularly in rural Indonesia where culture and religion attaches little or no stigma to women who marry a man who already has one or more wives. The only stipulation for a man is that he has the money to equally provide for all his wives.
But in cities such as Jakarta, where people tend to talk about the practice in whispers, the sense of humiliation women feel if their husbands marry again appears to be particularly acute.
Prominent Indonesians have been practising polygamy for decades. Former vice-president Hamzah Haz openly acknowledged a few years ago that he has three wives. Indonesia’s founding president, Soekarno, practised polygamy; Megawati Soekarnoputri, who also became president, is the daughter of his second wife.
Some foreign businessmen in Jakarta — all converts to Islam — have what are known as “first” and “second” wives, including children with both. They divide their time between the two houses that they maintain.
Siti Musdah Mulia, a feminist author and academic, disagrees with interpretations of the Koran that men can have up to four wives. “Men who practise polygamy lack faith and cultural perspective and have something wrong with them — or are unable to refrain from — their sexual desire,” Ms Mulia said.
“Women often consent to the practice of polygamy because of financial problems, marrying a man they believe will support them,” she said.