Sun, 23 Apr 2000

Several Muslim scholars say polygamy not endorsed by Islam

By Devi A. Asmarani

JAKARTA (JP): The day a woman finds out about the other woman is when her world starts tumbling down. Yayuk's case ended morbidly.

A devoted housewife and mother of three, her cycle of happiness came to an end when she found out her husband had also been happily married to another woman -- with whom he had fathered two boys -- for the last seven years. Shocked, she fell gravely ill for three weeks before her life ended in a hospital bed.

For Ika, it was Yudha's sweet promises that made her fall into a pseudo matrimonial trap. Yudha told her he had a troubled marriage and said he would soon divorce his wife. They spent intimate moments together and she later found out she was pregnant.

Desperate, Ika agreed to marry Yudha without legitimate documents, known here as an "unofficial marriage", with the hope that someday he would divorce his wife and legally marry her. There was no divorce, of course, and Ika was left with virtually no legal rights to claim over a marriage unregistered and unrecognized by the state.

There are elements of injustice, deception and hopelessness in these two cases. The fact is most polygamous marriages cause agony to at least one of the persons involved -- most often the first wife.

The argument that defends the practice of polygamy, however, is age-old and almost unchallenged: it is allowed by Islam, the religion practiced by 90 percent of the nation. The practice, to a certain degree, is not prohibited by the government.

But how can a religion that boasts of freeing the oppressed from their societal shackles endorse this sort of injustice?

It doesn't, some Muslims now argue. They say identifying polygamy with Islam is a misperception.

Musdah Mulia, a chief expert researcher at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, says Islamic teachings are monogamous in nature.

"It has been widely misperceived that Islam teaches polygamy, when in fact polygamy is something that had been widely practiced in Arabic society for thousands of years before Islam came along," Musdah says.

"What the Prophet Muhammad did at the time was restrict the number of wives a man can have from unlimited to as many as four."

Musdah says there is only one verse on polygamy in the Koran, and this verse during the Prophet Muhammad's life shocked Arab men, many of whom had hundreds of wives at the time. So radical was the change that some tribal leaders decided not to convert to Islam because they just couldn't see being married to only four wives.

Legislator Aisyah Hamid Baidlowi says that before Islam, women had the lowest status in middle-eastern society. They were saleable commodities to please men's sexual urges and were part of an inheritance. When a man died, his son could inherit his wife.

"Islam acknowledges that men have bigger sexual appetites than women, and thus only restricts the number instead of prohibits it," says Aisyah, who headed the Nahdlatul Ulama Muslimat, the women's body of the country's largest Muslim organization, from 1995 until earlier this year.

Muslim scholar Komaruddin Hidayat says polygamy was allowed in the context of helping widows and orphans of war casualties in the days of the Prophet, a time which was rife with tribal and civil wars.

"The interpretation of the verse has betrayed its spirit. The spirit was about freeing people from oppression, but it became something about domination over women," says Komaruddin, who chairs the Paramadina Foundation.

The Koran cites that in a polygamous relationship, the man must treat all of his wives fairly. Fairness here covers material goods, love and sexual relations. But this, Aisyah says, is almost impossible, for a normal human being anyway.

Nevertheless the men always claim that they treat their women fairly, something Komaruddin deems improper: "The victim or the women should be the one to say whether she is being treated fairly."

"What it boils down to is that men who have more than one wife are most certainly big liars who use the Koran's teachings to their benefit," Aisyah says.

Such is why most polygamous marriages are either illegitimate or unregistered. The Association of Indonesian Women for Justice (LBH APIK) handles 400 cases of mistreatment of or discrimination against women every year. About a fourth of these cases revolves around extramarital relationships or polygamy, and in both cases, one of the women involved is always deceived.

"Most men usually marry another woman without their wife's consent," LBH APIK's coordinator for legal services Asni Friyanti Damanik says.

According to the 1974 marriage law, a man must obtain the consent of his first wife and the court before he marries another woman. The law allows polygamy only under the conditions that the first wife cannot perform her duties as a wife, is handicapped or is terminally ill, or cannot bear a child.

Often the man obtains an identity card illegally by slightly changing his full name and by stating he is single to make the second wedding possible, Asni said.

Since permits from the legal wife and the court are hard to obtain, many men resort to marriage that is legitimized only by a Muslim cleric with the presence of two witnesses and is not recognized by the state.

Government regulation No. 10, 1983 also requires civil servants and government officials to have the consent from the wife and his superior before practicing polygamy. Failure to do so results in the loss of the job. Both laws, however, fail to deter men from practicing polygamy.

"I don't deny that polygamy exists in Islam, but it has been misunderstood. There needs to be reinterpretation on this issue," Musdah said.

One theory is that the Prophet's practice of polygamy was part of missionary work.

Musdah said the Prophet was married to his first wife Khadijah, who was 15 years older than he, for 28 years. After her death, and in the last five years of his life during which he was building a Muslim society in Medinah and surrounding areas, he wedded 11 women, most of whom were older and widows of war casualties.

"The Prophet needed solidarity support from the tribal groups and an effective way to do this is through marriage," she said.

"This wasn't a normal time, it was the time of religious proselytization."