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Can pre-nuptial study guarantee a happy marriage? Indonesia is hoping so

Sydney Morning Herald - November 5, 2023

Chris Barrett and Karuni Rompies – Just weeks out from their wedding, Jakarta couple Maya and Aji are deep in planning mode for the big day.

In their mid-30s, the pair, who both work for foreign companies in the Indonesian capital, are taking the plunge next month after a lengthy courtship.

"We finally feel we're ready and agreed that the relationship can go to the next step," Maya said.

Aji, her fiance, also feels it is time. "We are mature in age, financially sufficient and [both] families agreed," he said.

With their nuptials fast approaching there is, of course, a lot to do.

In their haste to have everything arranged, though, they will be spared at least one task soon set to be required of couples before they get hitched.

Indonesia's Ministry of Religious Affairs has flagged that from 2024 it intends to make pre-marriage courses mandatory for Muslims, who make up more than 80 per cent of the country's population of 278 million.

The classes are already available at the nearly 6000 marriage offices dotted around the archipelago and similar programs are already compulsory for Catholics and adherents of some other minority religions in South-East Asia's largest nation.

But in an effort to tackle rising rates of divorce and domestic violence, the course will become a compulsory prerequisite for tying the knot for most Indonesians, regardless of their religious identity.

"We are making the course mandatory. Otherwise our people don't have the awareness to plan a quality family," said Agus Suryo Suripto, a senior official from the ministry's directorate-general of Islamic affairs.

"If it is possible, we encourage the course to be taken by both [partners] together in the same place because the role-playing method [in the course] is designed for two people. However, if they live in a separate area or even in a separate city, they can still follow the pre-marriage course in their own place alone.

"We are now also designing a method for a virtual course. We will gradually introduce the public to the mandatory aspect of this course. If there is a special case where the bride and groom need to immediately get married and have not taken the course, they can do it but they cannot get the marriage book."

Called buku nikah, the book is Indonesian Muslims' version of a marriage certificate and is issued as a passport-sized document by the Religious Affairs Ministry.

The minimum 16-hour or two-day courses should be taken at least three months before the wedding day. They are conducted by 4600 certified instructors and cover topics such as family planning, how to nurture love within couples, maintaining communication and conflict resolution.

While the courses have been voluntary, spouses who didn't enrol in one have typically received only a few scripted tips moments before taking their oaths.

"Could you imagine that the bride and groom [are] already sitting in front of the official from the marriage affairs office, it's a sacred moment, do you think they will listen to the advice given by the official?" Suripto said.

A study by researchers at Semarang State University conducted between 2019 and 2021 found that one in four marriages in Indonesia do not survive. It's not just marriage breakdowns, though, that officials are seeking to reduce in the customarily patriarchal family culture, but the potentially damaging results of splitting up.

Suripto said one consequence was that girls who "do not get complete love from their parents" often fell into – or were forced into – child marriage. In Indonesia, one in nine women aged between 20 and 24 is married before they are 18, according to a report co-released by the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF) in 2020.As a further flow-on effect, researchers have found early marriage to be a contributing factor to malnourishment in the children born to these couples. Health Ministry figures showthat stunting afflicted 21 per cent of young children in Indonesia in 2022.

A total of 55,000 domestic violence cases recorded last year by the country's National Commission on Violence Against Women has also been cited as a reason to prioritise education for couples.

"We carried out a study of why families are vulnerable to divorce and to domestic violence [and] what are the causes of child marriage," Suripto said. "It turned out that there is a lack of sufficient knowledge on the side of the brides and grooms of what a marriage is.

"What prompted them to go into a marriage is merely instinct-driven, [motivated by] biological needs, or [men] believe they are financially sufficient for supporting themselves and their wives. But they don't have sufficient knowledge about how to manage family dynamics."

The move to make pre-marriage courses mandatory has the support of Ashabul Kahfi, the head of the committee overseeing religion in the Indonesian House of Representatives, although it has still to be put to legislators for approval.

Kahfi believes the subject should even be added to the curriculum at universities.

"This course is urgent given the high divorce rate. In 2022, divorce figures in Indonesia reached 516,000 cases," he said, quoting data from the country's Central Bureau of Statistics.

"If we divide it by 365, it means there are 1400 divorces per day. It is a huge number. And it is not only the case in Islamic families, it happens in all families with various religious backgrounds. Apart from divorce rate, we also see social cases in many kinds such as domestic violence, cheating and also economic cases. These are social problems."

Suripto said many young couples believed to be marrying for love or as part of their devotion to God, but that they were not properly equipped with the tools to stay together and "create a qualified generation".

There is also the matter of addressing gender imbalances in Muslim marriages in Indonesia, which has promoted a relatively liberal brand of Islam.

"When the groom gives dowry and provides everything every month [to the household] they feel they are entitled to receive service from their wives. The groom's perspective once they are married is wanting to be served. And the bride's perspective is to serve the groom," Suripto said.

"So, in this pre-marriage course we design a case that husband and wife have an equal and dignified relation. We hope that the course can contribute to the decrease in family related [legal] cases in Indonesia."

With a shift towards gender parity, it is women who have by and large been the ones filing for divorce as marriage break-ups have gone up over the past decade, according to Kholis Ridho, a lecturer in sociology and culture at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta.

Ridho believes compulsory courses would be embraced in communities that practise longstanding pre-wedding traditions such as pingitan, a Central Javanese ritual in which the bride-to-be must observe a period of seclusion in her house in the lead-up to being married.

"The bottom line is that the preparation for the wedding ceremony is carried out very carefully, solemnly, sacredly and with willingness with the intention that the marriage between two families can last until death," he said.

"Therefore the couple and their families will willingly do whatever they have to do to make the wedding ceremony a success ... it is carried out with the hope that the marriage will be harmonious and lasting."

He predicts less enthusiasm in urban and more multicultural centres, where time and practicality may be more pressing concerns for couples juggling their working lives with devising the finer details of their wedding.

That is certainly the case in Jakarta for Maya and Aji, who asked we don't publish their full names for their privacy.

"The main factor for both of us is the minimum time available," Maya said. "Our jobs are highly demanding at the moment and preparation for the wedding reception is carried out within a limited time."

Having perused the material about the pre-marriage course on the ministry's website, they also don't think they need it at this stage of their relationship.

"Our challenge is actually the external factors including family, who are of the opinion that women must always obey men," Aji said. "Knowing Maya made me understand about equal relationships."

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/can-pre-nuptial-study-guarantee-a-happy-marriage-indonesia-is-hoping-so-20231101-p5eguf.htm