Polygamy on the Run: Your Money or Your Wife
By Julia Suryakusuma
A few weeks ago I wrote a column entitled Give an Inch, Take a Mile, All in the Name of Family (The Jakarta Post, March 5, 2006) about my driver, Tomo, who took my kindness for granted and ended up abusing it. I dismissed him, because it was a matter of integrity and trust. I discovered that he had been constantly lying, and taking not just me, but also other people, mainly women, for a ride (sic!).
I thought it wise not to confront him about his personal life, so when it the time came to talk, I used the excuse that he had borrowed my gas cylinder for six months, and had not returned it even after I had repeatedly asked for it back. Not returning “company property” is indisputably nacceptable and irresponsible behavior in any firm, including my household, so I had an official reason to act.
I had enough reasons of my own to let him go, but Siti, my maid, gave me others. She told me he was planning to take on a second wife, a dangdut singer. Aha! So that’s what it was!
I had been perplexed for weeks and had kept on asking Siti and her husband Didi, what is Tomo on, that his behavior had become so strange. Drugs? Gambling? So that’s why he’d been taking time off, and constantly trying to borrow money! How could I have not guessed it! Sex! The greatest addiction there is!
Tomo was intending to marry his dangdut singer without telling his wife, as he told Siti that both he and his to-be did not want to hurt the first wife’s feelings. How noble of him! How risky, as well. Apart from his wife finding out, the Marriage Law states that for a Muslim to take a subsequent wife, permission is needed from the religious court, and that requires consent from the first wife.
Most polygamous couples therefore ignore the law and find a “friendly” kyai (Muslim cleric) to oblige with a bawah tangan unregistered marriage. What they did not know is that the consequences of keeping their polygamous marriage a secret could be years in prison for the man, but also for his new, illegally betrothed second wife.
Siti plied me with more juicy gossip: That he was having affairs with all and sundry. Tomo had even propositioned my mother’s maid, just out of her teens, to have a dirty outing at Ancol, a recreational park on Jakarta Bay.
Strangely, Tomo was totally open with Siti and Didi about his sexploits: He told them everything, shamelessly borrowing money from them, to pay for the hotel where he held his sexual trysts with his dangdut singer. Foolishly, they gave it to him, and that was the last they ever saw of their money.
Around the time the driver crisis was reaching a head, the film Berbagi Suami (Sharing a Husband, reviewed in The Jakarta Post), about three polygamous marriages involving different classes and ethnic groups, was being screened in cinemas. I went to see it. All of the extra marriages portrayed in the film also seem to be illegal, as Tomo’s with the dangdut singer will be too.
Despite the law, the majority of polygamous marriages in Indonesia are illegal. Official statistics only report polygamous unions approved by the court, so government claims that it is rare, ignore the reality that it is an everyday event throughout much of Indonesia.
There are basically three kinds of polygamous marriages. The first is akin to divorce, where the husband spends most of his time with the subsequent wife. While the first wife stays in the original matrimonial home. She is basically cast off, save for her legal and, if she’s lucky, economic rights.
The second type is essentially an affair, and just manipulates Islam to give the liaison a pseudo-legal facade. The third type amounts to prostitution, where the subsequent wife engages in the “contract”, for money, and the man, for sex. This last type predictably doesn’t last very long. The first wife is the one who usually suffers emotionally, while the subsequent wives have no legal rights in the case of the dissolution of the marriage (by divorce or death) because it is in effect, illegal.
It is common knowledge that in Indonesia there is a great facility of marriage and divorce. At the grassroots level, sometimes it is seasonal. In the villages, marriages often occur during harvest time, while droughts bring on a spate of divorces. That’s fine for consenting adults, but what happens to the children? As Berbagi Suami shows, their future can be grim and depressing, and has become all the more so since the economic crisis, especially if the parents were never legally married in the first place.
This is the real problem — not so much what adults should or should not do when they get horny and see an opportunity for sex, but whether they think about the consequences, especially for the next generation. And perhaps this reflects our national problems too. We spend huge amounts on paying debts incurred by the profligacy of the rulers and businessmen of the New Order, who borrowed promiscuously when they saw the opportunity. In the meantime, our orphaned education system quietly goes down the drain, with Indonesia spending less as a percentage of GDP on teaching children than most of our ASEAN neighbors. Oops, there goes our future!
Well, my philandering driver is bound to be caught eventually. Before we parted ways, his grown up daughter had started to call frequently to my house to check whether her father was really on duty (as opposed to being “on the job”!) as she was beginning to suspect something fishy. And when he is caught, I don’t think anyone will be quite outraged enough to get everyone in a bigger mess by resorting to the weak and predatory arm of the law, with its hand perpetually out for cash.
Chances are, Tomo will just flash his characteristic, big, toothy grin, and charm — or force — hapless wife number one, to accept his actions as being, well, simply the way (some) men are. Let’s hope we can take a less passive attitude toward how our politicians and leaders are!