October 6, 2007
The Canberra Times

Practice of polygamy reflects badly on modern Muslim way

One of Indonesia’s most famous polygamists, Puspo Wardoyo, has a sort of Boost Juice approach to sexual stamina. Mix four tropical fruits, a dribble of honey, a dash of ice, blend it fast and kapow! You’re on your way to a healthy life and plenty of wives.

So good is the stuff, Wardoyo calls it ”polygamy juice”. And if fruit isn’t your thing, you can choose four favourite vegetables instead. Mind you, no more than four. Wardoyo is no glutton. Four wives, four veg – or fruit. Wardoyo is a godly man, and godly men mustn’t be greedy. He’s happy to stop at four.

Given polygamy is back in the news in Indonesia this week, Wardoyo could do well to hype up the advertising on polygamy juice specials at his popular chain of 33 restaurants. He first introduced polygamy juice in 2003, around the time he ran Indonesia’s inaugural Polygamy Awards. The awards were a great hit with the media.

A couple of years ago this famous restaurateur shared the secrets of his polygamous success with Harpers magazine. In addition to exercising daily and eating plenty of ”fruit, vegetables, seafood and honey to maintain your stamina”, Wardoyo suggested, ”Don’t smoke. Smell good. Be diligent in brushing your teeth.”

But it’s not all physical. Wardoyo suggests a man of many wives must also remember to read the Koran and educate his wives ”to be good and faithful, and to understand the principle of Islamic polygamy”.

The hapless businessman at the centre of this week’s court case, Muhammad Insa, tried that. He tried instructing his one and only wife about the principle of Islamic polygamy. But despite being a good Muslim she just wasn’t into it, and wouldn’t agree to sharing the marital bed. No doubt he argued that polygamy was legal in Indonesia – which it is. But she wouldn’t budge. Which is why he went to the Constitutional Court.

On Wednesday he lost. But polygamy won the day.

The barbaric practice of polygamy is legal in Indonesia and protected under Islamic law. Given Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim state, it is unlikely such an uncivilised custom will be easily relinquished. And this week’s court decision confirmed that.

Placed in the invidious position of operating in a modernised nation, but with cultural roots firmly stuck in ancient misogynist dogma, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court appears to have struggled with Insa’s polygamy case. As a Muslim, he is entitled to take up to four wives. But under Islamic law a man can only do so under certain conditions. The current wife must be childless, terminally ill or not fulfilling her ”sexual obligations”. Most importantly, the current wife or wives must agree to her husband marrying again. Which is where Insa lost out.

In court his lawyer argued that the conditions placed on polygamy were too restrictive, and thereby a violation of Insa’s human rights as a Muslim man. While the court didn’t agree and stated ”the foundation of marriage is monogamy”, it nevertheless went on to confirm ”that polygamy is allowed” under certain conditions. The court gave no indication it would seek to change or challenge those conditions.

A grumpy Insa said the ruling was ”unfair”. He believes multiple wives keep men away from having adulterous affairs and as such polygamy keeps the divorce rate down. During his case Insa also ran the line about ”unattached women” being ripe for roles as seductresses and secret mistresses. Better they be saved from such immorality by becoming an additional wife.

In his view, women have no legitimacy unless they are the legal property of a man. Unfortunately and tragically, such a world view is still widely and broadly shared.

Last month the Jakarta Post ran an editorial championing his cause, suggesting an issue of ”human rights” was at stake. The editorial sent a loud message to the judges in Insa’s case saying that if they ruled in his favour they ”will be showered with blessings from millions of Indonesian Muslim men, for they will be free of the strict conditions for taking a second, third or perhaps fourth wife”. The editorial praised Islam for recognising that monogamy is not ”human nature”.

But while ”human nature” may not be monogamous, why does that give any man the right to be polygamous? Islamic understanding of ”human nature” seems vexed with contradiction and male convenience.

How can reducing women’s status be ”human nature”? How can denying women their autonomy and freedom of choice be in accord with ”human nature”? How can restricting a woman’s movements, shrouding her in cloth and making her invisible to the world, be ”human nature”? And why is gender equity considered to be an anathema to ”human nature” under Islamic law?

Despite numerous calls by Muslim women’s groups for polygamy to be banned, it remains entrenched in law, though it’s not widely practised.

Last year when Indonesia’s popular television cleric Abdullah Gymnastiar announced he’d taken a second wife, many Muslim women expressed their anger and frustration. He was supposedly a champion of ”family values”.

Yet I wonder how such ”family values” would sit with a role reversal.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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