Nurhayati bent to the dirt floor to gather peeled shallots that fell as she prepared lunch for her two children.
The 37-year-old first wife in a polygamous marriage spends much of her time in her modest kitchen, cooking fritters to sell in her village in Cilebut, a regency of Indonesia’s West Java province.
“I didn’t want it. But the children don’t want their parents to separate,” Nurhayati told BenarNews, recalling the time six years ago when her husband took a second wife against her wishes.
“I want to keep and raise my children. They’re my everything. Maybe this is my fate, so I take it,” Nurhayati, a peddler’s wife, said as she began to weep.
Polygamy, frowned upon but legal under certain conditions in Indonesia, is increasing alongside the rise of conservative Islam in the Muslim-majority nation, activists say.
“The issue is escalating as fundamentalism is on the rise,” Azriana Manalu, who chairs the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), told BenarNews.
Polygamy harms women who are locked in such marriages, according to the commission, which was established by presidential decree 20 years ago to eliminate violence against women.
“Polygamy is a violation of women’s rights and a crime in married life … Wives and the whole family members are cheated. Sadly, it’s becoming a phenomenon in Indonesia,” said Yuniyanti Chuzaifah, vice chair of Komnas Perempuan.
No hard data exists on the number of legal polygamous marriages in Indonesia, much less the unregistered, unofficial marriages sanctioned by Islamic clerics called nikah siri. Last month, however, the commission published a report linking polygamy to domestic abuse.
“Polygamy and nikah siri are threats to civil marriage. They keep violence against women behind closed doors,” it said.
Nurhayati told BenarNews that after her husband took a second wife, she experienced an incident of physical abuse.
“It happened when I demanded him to pay for the children’s school fee. He hit me and we got into a fight. Once, he didn’t come home for two years and didn’t send us money either. Now, I stop myself from asking much of him. I’m tired,” she said.
Though the practice is frowned upon in Indonesia, polygamy is gaining popularity through social media and apps with names like AyoPoligami [“Let’s Do Polygamy”] and Nikah Sirri.com, a racy site offering to help “families in hardship” auction their virgin daughters for “hundreds of millions of rupiah.” That site has since been blocked by the government.
“I'm afraid it’s becoming a trend because it’s been given room on various social media platforms. We know some Muslim leaders proudly announced their polygamous marriage to the public by posting it on social media,” Azriana said.
What the law says
Polygamy is permitted under certain conditions, according to Indonesia’s Marriage Law. It stipulates that a man can have more than one wife as long he has his current spouse’s consent and obtains a permit from a court. The man must be able to provide equal financial support to his different wives and families.
The law also states that a man can marry another woman, without divorcing his wife, if his current spouse “cannot perform her obligations as a wife,” suffers from critical illness or physical disabilities, or is infertile.
Such marriages must be registered with the state to be legitimate, but unregistered illegal marriages also occur “because they are considered approved by religion or local culture,” Azriana said.
By definition, nikah siri must be sanctified by an Islamic cleric. But many men who seek second wives aren’t doing it out of religious belief, said Dwiyono Bayuadhi, 38, an Indonesian man who opposes polygamy.
“Nowadays, the reason for polygamy is mostly to fulfill one’s sexual needs,” he told BenarNews. “You see that most men practicing polygamy seek younger women to be their second wife. They just use religion as their reason.”
Under proposed amendments to Indonesia’s criminal code, people involved in nikah siri, extramarital relationships or homosexual sex could be prosecuted.
‘I’m not his priority’
Asti, a 27-year-old resident of Jakarta, accepted a married man’s proposal to become his second wife after Asti had divorced from another man.
“At first I didn’t want to, I was worried the neighbors would gossip. But both of us felt comfortable with it, so we decided to marry,” Asti told BenarNews.
Both Nurhayati and Asti asked that BenarNews only use their first names.
Asti said she accepted the proposal when her new husband promised to support her child financially. But, she said, this hasn’t been enough for her emotionally.
“I’m not his priority. He often returns to his first wife. I feel hurt sometimes that I wish I had my husband only for me and never shared with another woman,” Asti said.
“I once thought of getting divorced with him despite his commitment. But then I reconsidered it, telling myself that it is difficult to get a financially secure man to support us,” she added.