From Financial TImes http://news.ft.com/cms/s/054c77b4-def9-11da-acee-0000779e2340.html Indonesia brings debate on polygamy out of the shadows
By Shawn Donnan and Taufan Hidayat
Published: May 9 2006 03:00 | Last updated: May 9 2006 03:00
Salma is a gynaecologist with a wealthy husband, a Gucci purse and a weekend horseback riding habit. Siti is a village girl struggling with city life and beauty school. Ming is a pretty 20-something waitress with acting ambitions who patrols the tables in a gritty restaurant renowned for its duck.
In bustling modern-day Jakarta, women lead contrasting lives. But as the main characters in what is now Indonesia's most talked about film, Berbagi Suami (literally Sharing Husband), they also have something in common - all are involved in emotionally bruising polygamous relationships and struggling to deal with their husbands' divided attentions.
"Is there anything wrong with me?" a distraught Salma asks her husband after discovering she is not his only wife. "You're perfect," he says. "I just wanted to avoid committing adultery."
Salma, Siti and Ming are the latest voices to chime in to an Indonesian debate on the once-taboo subject of polygamy, a discussion long affected by the complicated shadows of culture, religion and politics.
But Berbagi Suami also appears on Indonesian screens as conservative Muslim politicians are pushing a draft anti-pornography law that would ban kissing in public, dressing immodestly or even moving "erotically".
Moderates see the legislation as an attempt to impose snippets of Islamic law on a freewheeling democracy with a long history of resisting Koranic rule. The result, opponents say, is that sex and related issues such as polygamy are the main battleground in a broader debate on just how Islamic the world's biggest Muslim nation should be.
"If you look at anything involving sexuality in Indonesia at the moment you can see it as a manifestation of what is being played out politically as well," says Julia Suryakusuma, a feminist commentator.
Multiple marriages are legal in Indonesia. A 1974 law allows men - with government permission - to take additional wives if their first wife cannot have children or if they meet other conditions. Last year 989 applications for such licences were lodged. More than 800 were approved.
But culture and politics have long influenced how acceptable the practice is. At one point in the 1960s Sukarno, the country's founding father, was married to six of his nine wives, thereby, polygamists argue, carrying on the legacy of Java's sultans.
Sukarno's successor, Suharto, was the opposite. During his 32-year rule, his wife, Siti Hartinah "Tien" Suharto, pushed a ban on polygamy for civil servants.
In the eight years since Suharto things have grown more complex. Suharto's fall in 1998 led to the public re-emergence of Islamist groups he had suppressed. It also contributed to a surge in public piety, some of which drew on the Middle East and the more orthodox observance of Islam for inspiration.
"In Indonesia anything written in Arabic is considered to be truth [and] anything brought from [the Arab world] is considered to be absolute truth," including polygamy, says Sinta Nuriyah Wahid, the wife of former president Abdurrahman Wahid and an opponent of multiple marriages.
In November 2004 the former first lady led a group that blocked the delivery of boxed lunches from a famed polygamist's restaurant chain.
Puspo Wardoyo, the restaurateur who drew Mrs Wahid's ire, argues that polygamy is not only endorsed by the Koran but the responsibility of any wealthy Muslim man.
As an 18-year-old, Nia Dinata, writer and director of Berbagi Suami, was summoned home from university in the US so that her businessman father could announce his second - polygamous - marriage.
The marriage followed an affair that left his lover pregnant and him facing pressure from her family to marry her. Confronting cultural pressures of her own, Dinata says her mother "didn't have any choice" but to accept the second marriage".
What Dinata says was her mother's battle to maintain her dignity inspired the woman's-eye view of Indonesian polygamy in Berbagi Suami. And Dinata is unequivocal in her opposition to the practice.
But the film, which screened last week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and is due to be shown on the sidelines of the Cannes Film Festival, has won at least cautious praise from some prominent polygamists.
"If you look at that film from a woman's perspective it seems as if polygamy is unfair to women," says Puspo Wardoyo, the restaurateur. But the film shows that polygamy is alive and well in Indonesia, he says, and "not every case of polygamy ends up like that. Many cases have happy endings."
Additional reporting by Taufan Hidayat