Polygamy is a form of violence against women

by Faiza Mardzoeki

July 25 2003 marks a setback in the Indonesian women’s movement. On that date an Indonesian businessman, a restaurant owner, organised an award ceremony for males who had married more than one wife. This event was held in the Arya Duta Hotel.

More than 30 women’s organisations as well as individuals from Jakarta protested this event. Among the organisations that formed the coalition “Indonesian Women’s Conscience-Nurani Perempuan Indonesia” were the APIK Legal Aid Centre, Aisyiah, Kalyanamitra, Institut Ungu, and the National Commision of Violence against Women. This coalition rejects polygamy and also protested the awards ceremony. A similiar demonstration had also taken place a year ago in Yogyakarta.

The women’s movement has always rejected polygamy. Kartini was among those who were virulent opponents of polygamy. There was also a strong movement later, Pewari in 1952 opposing the decision by President Soekarno to take a second wife. After the fall of Soeharto, the women’s movement always raised its opposition to polygamy when it organised events to protest violence against women.

The women’s movement outside Indonesia also opposes the practice of polygamy. This is shown by the recommendations passed on the issue of the Elimination of Discrimination in February 1998 at the UN. At the 378th session of the assembly, a resolution was passed stating “that Indonesia, as the largest Islamic society, is urged to become a society free of polygamy” and it added “polygamy remains a threat to all women as long as it remains unprohibited by law.”

Polygamy is a form of violence against women and children. The practice of marrying more than one woman is a product of unequal power relations between husband and wife. (pernyataan kaulan perempuan, aksi bersama menuju masyarakat tanpa kekerasan). Male domination in the form of power wielder in the household and controller of al family economics has provided the basis for the development of a doctrine, misusing religion as a weapon to subdue wives and children.

Most polygamists refer to the verses from the Qoran, namely the 3rd verse from an-Nisa, which reads: [4.3] And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course.”

According to Musdah Mulia in her book “The Islamic View on Polygamy” these verses were not related to the issue of polygamy as such but rather related to the issue of how to care for orphans and the unjustice treatment they sometimes suffered. These verses contain a warning for all people to avoid all forms of injustice and arbitary acts, especially within a marriage relationship.

Does the Marriage Law permit Polygamy?

In Law No 1 1974 Clause 2, it states a husband may have only one wife and a wife only one husband. That clauses institutes monogamy not polygamy. However, Clause 3 negates this intent by giving a court the power to grant permission for a man to have more than one wife if it is “desired by the concerned parties. “

The inconsistency between these two clauses also exposes the weakness of the position of the woman in the relationship. A man is given a way out to get around the prohibition on multiple wives by the second clause which allows a court to give him permission to marry additional wives if he fulfills the conditions in clause 5 of Law No 1, 1974.

It is true that if a husband marries a second wife without the permission of the first wife, the first wife can seek an annulment of the marriage. This is set out in Clause 22 of the Law. However, it such relationships, where economic dependence and religious pressure can also be factors, many first wives are reluctant or are not in a position to withhold permission. In any case, the organisers of the Polygamy Award ceremony have been campaigning for the right for a husband to take an additional wife without being required to ask permission of any existing wives.

In all these arrangements, the woman is placed in a lesser position than the man. This is indeed the nature of polygamy. Polygamy reinforces unequal relations between men and women in society. It is itself a form of violence against women. It is therefore not surprising that supporters of polygamy had also to rely on violence when they physically attacked the women demonstrating outside the Arya Duta Hotel last week.

Polygamy should be totally prohibited by law.

(This article was published in The Jakarta Post, July 2003)