12/13/2012, 00.00
INDONESIA

Islam, polygamy and power in the case of the West Java official

Mathias Hariyadi
The 40-year-old district official repudiated his wife after four days of marriage because "she was not a virgin" and he had a right "to an untouched bride". Although president Yudhoyono has called for his dismissal, the case raises questions about the relationship between religion, society, women's rights and abuses of power.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - The recent case of a government official in a West Java district who repudiated his new wife four days after the wedding because she was not a virgin has stirred a hornet's nest in Indonesia. Even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono waded into the affair, calling for the official's dismissal, something that many Indonesians would be too happy to see. However, the case is symptomatic of some of the major social and religious contradictions that characterise the life of the world's most populous Muslim nation. One such contradiction is the practice by rich businessmen to marry more than one woman according to Muslim tradition, without registering the union with the civil authorities, especially since polygamy in Indonesia (as well as in other Muslim nations) is frown upon by the state.

The case in question goes back to this summer when 40-year-old Aceng HM Fikri (pictured), a district chief in Garut, repudiated Fani Oktora, 18, after four days of marriage, celebrated on 14 July in an Islamic ceremony.

At the time, Fikri was already married to another woman according to the civil law. Less than a week after taking a new bride, he sent her a text message repudiating her, saying that he did not spend 250 million rupees (US$ 26,000) for "a girl that was not even a virgin."

"Having spent all that money, I had the right to expect her to be untouched," he said in his defence. "Going to bed with a celebrity would not have cost me as much," he added.

These words sparked a row across the country, with women's groups and associations outraged. Quickly, activists and students took to the streets, calling for him to be removed from office.

The protest reached the highest office in the land, when President Yudhoyono spoke about the matter at an official meeting with the country's governors. He personally told Interior Minister Gamawan Fauzi to deal with the 'Fikri scandal' and get his resignation. For the president, the local official's behaviour was inappropriate and indecent vis-à-vis women's rights.

However, this was not a localised incident, but is actually representative of a widespread problem that affects the entire country where religion holds great sway and wealthy men and politicians can indulge in their power and take advantage of the fact that Islam authorises polygamy.

Many women thus find themselves in 'nikah siri' or unregistered marriages, sharing a husband with an official wife. This has created resentment, especially among unofficial wives who are more likely to be victims of abuses and marginalisation. Because of the lack of legislation in the matter, the legal system cannot do much.

Under Islamic law, Muslim men can marry up to four wives. Some rich pro-polygamy Indonesians want even more. However, under General Suharto (1967-1998), Indonesia took a stand against polygamy. Polygamous public officials were dismissed.

In order to make matters clearer, Suharto signed into law in 1974 legislation that bans government officials from practicing polygamy, a measure many Indonesians believe was taken because of the influence of Suharto's wife, Tien Suharto, a very traditional Javanese woman but one opposed to polygamy.

Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, was by contrast a notorious womaniser and polygamist.

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