As Conservative Islam Rises in Indonesia, Polygamy Flourishes
By Laura Gumbs 1 July 2013
Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq, the ex-chairman of Indonesia’s Islamist-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), is currently on trial for corruption involving receipt of bribes in exchange for issuing higher beef import quotas though the agriculture ministry, which the party controls.
Luthfi also has been accused of funneling billions of rupiah to his three wives in order to launder money he received in bribes. He says his youngest was already 18 when he married her last year while she was still attending vocational school. The 51-year old Luthfi has 15 children from his marriages, presumably most from his first two wives.
PKS, which fancies itself an upholder of religious virtue, has been rocked by the twin graft scandals, first the beef and then revelation of Luthfi’s secret girl-wife and corresponding abuse of power and privilege. Even the original bribery case was mired in sex because an aide to the PKS leader was arrested in the company of a college co-ed he had paid for sex in a luxury Jakarta hotel. Rumor has it that the co-ed has been a frequent companion of many senior PKS figures.
Many men marry extra wives secretly, making exact figures on polygamous marriages hard to determine. Polygamy was legalized in 1974 under Marriage Law No. 1. Men may take up to four wives but women may not take extra husbands.
Polygamy was, however, discouraged and restricted until the end of the reign of Suharto, when Islamic organizations demanded lifts on prohibitions of Islamic practices. In 2000 after pressure from the Muslim Unity Organzation (Persis), the prohibition on public servants having more than one wife was annulled.
Polygamy is permissible under Islam, and also justified by it. Across Islamic parties, the practice is common even though it is frowned upon by large swathes of Indonesian society. Other PKS officials with multiple wives are Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring, and party officials Didin Amaruddin, Anis Matta and Zulkieflimansyah.
In 2009, the Indonesian Women’s Solidarity group released a list of polygamous politicians just before the parliamentary and presidential elections and it briefly flared as a campaign issue. However these politicians remain buoyant in their political aspirations, with newly appointed PKS Chairman Anis Matta public about his two wives and soon-to-be 10 children.
In a climate of increasing Islamization of the public sphere and a simultaneous expansion of an educated middle class, polygamy has both its ardent supporters and indignant detractors. “There is no such thing as a polygamous marriage that benefits women,” said National Commission on Violence against Women member Andy Yentriyani.
The behavior of PKS, the largest of the country’s Islamic parties, leaves Indonesia’s human rights and development objectives sorely impoverished. Not only does corruption perpetuate unequal social and economic relations, senior PKS officials send messages that represent impractical and unsustainable family units and broader social economic relations.
A recent Jakarta Globe story quoted Health Minister Nafsiah Mboi as stating that Indonesia’s family planning programs had failed, as the 2014 Millennium Development Goals target of 2.1 births per woman was still at 2.6 in 2012. Yet polygamists demonstrate that they are above efforts to decrease excessive births, especially polygamists whose wealth indemnifies them from the concerns of the rural poor who strain to provide resources for large families.
More worryingly, Nafsiah said that child marriages are increasing, which adds to higher maternal mortality rates due to immature reproductive organs.
“Currently, instances of early marriage are increasing, and teenagers under 20 years old are sexually active,” she said.
Indonesia’s mortality rate is 17,520 cases per year, or two people per hour. Sudibyo Alimoeso, acting chief of the Family Planning Board (BKKBN), also said child marriage is a contributing factor to the number.
However the failures of the family planning board are illustrated by poorly-focused programs such as a counseling campaign to provide more information about the risks of childbirth for sexually immature women, which was only introduced in non-Islamic schools.
In order to address the problem of child marriage, maternal mortality, poverty, and gender inequality, clearly religio-cultural sources such as Islam should not be ignored, and with it the unequal patriarchal social relations it produces.
Rather than seeing such issues as sites for the formation and contest of masculinity, these behaviors have real consequences for society and for females. Luthfi and Co., with their penchant for teenagers and numerous offspring, perpetuate a cycle of inequality that results in poverty, the entrapment of women to their fertility and dependence on their husbands. This is primarily a problem for developing countries, and those in prominent political positions inadvertently exemplify detrimental traditions that stall women’s progress.
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes child marriage as a complex and longstanding practice, rooted deeply in gender inequality, tradition and poverty.
“Social pressures within a community can lead families to wed young children. For example, some cultures believe marrying girls before they reach puberty will bring blessings on families. Some societies believe that early marriage will protect young girls from sexual attacks and violence and see it as a way to insure that their daughter will not become pregnant out of wedlock and bring dishonor to the family.”
According to the WHO, child marriage is increasingly recognized as a violation of the rights of girls for significant reasons: It ends education, blocking any opportunity to gain vocational and life skills. It exposes girls to the risks of too-early pregnancy, child bearing, and motherhood before they are physically and psychologically ready. It increases their risk of intimate partner sexual violence and HIV infection.
Backwards ways of thinking about women, very young women included, the institutionalization through marriage of women’s commodification in sexual relationships, the care and maintenance by multiple females of a central male patriarch, and even the benefit of multiple wives as vessels for the disbursement of illicit funds, are perpetuated and legitimized by officials like those in PKS.
Lauren Gumbs is a human rights student at Curtin University in Perth and holds a master’s degree in Communications. She resides in East Java.