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.