Friday, December 08, 2006

Polygamy in Indonesia

My old high school buddies would frequently tease me for being the school’s only “Mossie”. I’d remind them that being Muslim has its perks. Who needs 72 virgins in heaven when you can enjoy upto 4 wives here? Of course, polygamy isn’t that simple. It’s a contentious issue even in Muslim majority states.

In January this year, I visited Indonesia on a Muslim exchange program sponsored by the Australia-Indonesia Institute. I visited Bandung , a hill station used by Dutch colonists to escape Jakarta ’s heat. We stayed in a luxurious hostel owned and managed by Abdullah Gymnastiar, an eccentric and popular Sufi preacher known for wearing his trademark turban whilst driving a Harley Davidson.

Aa Gym (as his followers call him) has just announced he’s marrying a 2nd wife, sparking an enormous controversy in the world’s largest Muslim-majority state. I’m not sure where he’ll keep her. His small 2-storey house in Bandung (next door to our hostel), has hardly enough room for Aa Gym, his first wife and numerous children.

The decision has sparked angry e-mails and text messages from even his powerful and largely upper middle class admirers. Women’s groups will also, no doubt, complain. And with good reason. One NGO we visited was Rifka an-Nisa, a Yogyakarta-based Muslim women’s organisation dealing with domestic violence and other issues affecting women. RN activists told us that, while polygamy is rare, it’s frequently associated with physical and sexual violence against subsequent spouses.

The issue of polygamy was also raised by women’s activists I met during a similar exchange program to Malaysia in June. Groups like Sisters in Islam are agitating for reform in Malaysia where polygamy is far more common and culturally accepted.

Sadly, all too often shariah (Islam’s sacred law) is used as an instrument for repression. Women and non-Muslim minorities are frequently the victims. Hence, it’s little wonder that more and more Muslim scholars are calling for an end (or at least a moratorium) on the selective application of shariah that keeps the Mullahs happy but leaves the rest of us in shock.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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1 comment:

wali said...

You're right about polygyny being rare in Indonesia. I think there are a few reasons working against it.
1. Community and political leaders have not openly advocated it (although 'secret' mistresses are often assumed by the public to exist).
2. Soeharto's wife Ibu Tien campaigned long and hard against it.
3. In some cases (at least that I know of), households can be quite matriarchal - mothers rule the roost and are naturally disposed to inculcating an aversion to their sons taking more than one wife.
4. If a son takes on a 2nd wife and it is emotionally hurtful to the 1st wife, this embarrasses the son's family (esp. the parents) in their relations with the parents of the 1st wife. Embarrassment often plays a big motivating role in Jawa society.
5. Most people are dirt-poor and thus cannot meet one of the basic economic requirements set down in the shariah even if they wanted to.