Dina Afrianty – On 23 September, Indonesia's second largest Islam-based political party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), sparked controversy by publicly recommending polygamy as part of its Covid-19 response.
The party's so-called Solidarity Program for Those Affected by the Pandemic (Takzirah 12-Solidaritas Terdampak Pandemi) aims to assist the community, particularly the most vulnerable, in navigating the extended pandemic and its economic consequences. But shockingly, one of the solutions it proposed was that "male members who are capable (mampu) and willing to have more than one wife should prioritise marrying aromil (widows) or awanis (female orphans)". Notably, PKS used the Arabic aromil and awanis, instead of the Indonesian terms for widow (janda) and female orphans (anak yatim perempuan).
Encouraging polygamy as a response to Covid-19 appears to be motivated by the fact that women have been reported to be more vulnerable to the pandemic. The loss of male breadwinners, for example, has resulted in more female heads of households, many of whom face the double burden of financial and domestic responsibility for their families.
The PKS approach is a result of its interpretation of Islam, which considers that polygamous marriage is not just acceptable, but even benefits the destitute, in particular, widows and orphans. It is viewed as an alternative policy that can provide economic relief across society. Men who have the "capacity" and "desire" to take on additional wives can refer to this policy as moral justification.
The party argued the decision was adopted following an "assessment" and internal party consultation, and therefore had full support, including from the women's section of the party.
Change of mind
It is the same old story for the Islamic political party of PKS when it comes to polygamous marriage. Like other conservative Muslim organisations, PKS has argued that because Islam does not ban polygamy, the state must not intervene by regulating it.
In fact, the Indonesian government has long sought to regulate and restrict polygamy. To take an additional wife, men must, by law, obtain clearance from the local Religious Court, show that their existing wife is "unable to perform their domestic duties" or suffering from serious illness, and satisfy the court that they have the approval of their existing wife or wives. Polygamous marriage without court permission is a criminal offence. Many view these rules as a de facto government prohibition of polygamy – or at the very least a limitation on its practice.
PKS's attempt to promote polygamy as a solution to the Covid-19 pandemic was immediately condemned by a range of groups in society. Not only because the recommendation was not consistent with the law that has regulated polygamous marriage for many years, but also because it demonstrated a patriarchal attitude toward women. Clearly, PKS considers that women can only be protected by men, and that protection can be given only if they become wives.
Moreover, the recommendation to consider marrying awanis, or female orphans, raises major questions about the party's commitment to protecting children from child marriage. The Arabic term awanis actually refers to female children who have lost their father – so they are not orphans in the general sense. This category of young women is, apparently, singled out as particularly vulnerable, despite the presence of their mothers. Not only are they to be deprived of opportunity and choice by being married off as children, but their mothers are ignored and devalued.
Indonesia's National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) strongly condemned the PKS announcement. The commission argued that targeting women and girls to be second, third or fourth wives is a form of discrimination against women. Further, it stated that the belief that wives or female orphans should be married off as additional wives demonstrated a lack of sympathy from PKS for wives and daughters who were still likely grieving their husbands and fathers.
Initially PKS seemed confident with its decision, and publicly defended the position. But following widespread condemnation, a few days later, the party announced that it would no longer recommend polygamy as part of its Covid-19 recovery program.
Islamists' misogynistic gender politics agenda
The recommendation that married men take a widow or female orphan as an additional wife is patriarchal and misogynistic. At its heart is the belief that women and girls can only function and participate in society if they become wives.
Time and again, conservative Muslims in Indonesia have shown that they are not interested in advancing women's social status by seeing them as equal citizens. Conservative Muslims continue to advance social policies and launch legal challenges in which women's bodies, appearance, and morality come under deliberate assault.
These have included strong opposition to the ultimately successful constitutional challenge that saw the marriageable age for girls increased from 16 to 19 (in line with the minimum age for boys), the controversial anti-pornography legal reforms, ongoing debates on the anti-sexual violence bill, and about the women's status and divorce in general.
As Komnas Perempuan rightly argued, while women and children have been badly affected by the pandemic, the solution should be to empower them by providing access to economic empowerment programs – not force them into marriage.
PKS claimed its policy had the endorsement of female party representatives. If true, this is particularly galling. While these women are apparently able to contribute to public policy, they are happy keep their sisters confined to the private sphere of the family.
It is bewildering that this was the approach of PKS to this global public health crisis. Aside from the fact that the interpretation of Islam that PKS used to justify the policy is debatable, this initiative says much about PKS's capacity to contribute to public policy. That is, as ever, religious conservatives seem incapable of lifting their gaze beyond the field of morality and piety.In fact, the PKS announcement is simply the latest example of how a strictly defined ethical template dominates the conservative mindset. There is no reason why Islamic values cannot make a positive contribution to solving the world's problems. But, inevitably, prominent Indonesian Islamist groups seem to wrongly view conservative gender ideology as the most appropriate solution to social problems – or even the only one.
They appear unable to recognise alternative narratives and accept that equality is not only an option, but is the message of scriptures.