Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 28, March 2012
Nina Nurmila

Women, Islam and Everyday Life:

Renegotiating Polygamy in Indonesia

London and New York: Routledge, Women in Asia Series, 2009
ISBN 10:0-415-46802-7 (hbk); xvii + 197 pp.

reviewed by Lyn Parker

  1. This excellent and timely book addresses the hot topic of polygamy in Indonesia. Surprisingly, the key word 'polygamy' is barely visible on the front cover of the book.[1] The book is a revised PhD thesis, and I want to note that it is one of very few from Indonesian scholars who have won Australian Development Scholarships (ADS) and converted their theses into books. Given the number of scholarships, it seems a shame that so few have reached publication—in this case I suspect credit is due to people like Sue Blackburn and Louise Edwards, who have steered it through and been thanked appropriately in the Acknowledgements.
  2. Polygamy has probably been the most difficult issue that the Indonesian women's movement has had to deal with. Nurmila tackles the issue head on, as she must, because it has been promoted by Islamic conservatives in Indonesia since the 1990s, and become more respectable. Under the Marriage Law of 1974, polygamy is legal in Indonesia, but its practice is discouraged and restricted. However, with the increasing Islamisation of the public sphere and the actions of some very public, wealthy and media-savvy polygamists—notably, the fried chicken chain businessman, Puspo Wardoyo, and former President Megawati's Vice President, Hamzah Haz—polygamy has certainly become more normalised over the last two decades. It is probably impossible to document an increasing incidence of polygamy, as many polygynous marriages are secret and/or unregistered, but Nurmila claims that the occurrence of polygamy is 'widespread and growing' (p. 2).
  3. The book is well structured: the structure advances the argument. The introductory chapters explore Indonesian Muslim discourses on polygamy and the practice of polygamy in the ethnographic context of marriage, family and kinship. Nurmila bases her discussion on a Muslim feminist interpretation of polygamy in the Qur'an. She discusses at length the verses that advocates of polygamy put forward as the basis for Islam's toleration of polygamy, drawing on the work of feminist scholars such as Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas. She argues, taking a holistic and contextual (rather than literal) approach to the Qur'an, that the thrust of these verses is that polygamy was allowed at the time the Qur'an was revealed (after a war in which many men were killed), in order to 'ensure social justice for orphans' (p. 45).

      If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or that which your right hands possess. That will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice (Qur'an 4: 2–3, Ali 1989: 184–5, in Nurmila 2009: 44).

  4. Nurmila argues that the central ethic of the Qur'an here, for both orphans and wives, is a concern for justice for the powerless. This sort of interpretation she labels the Contextualist approach to polygamy. However, this is not a dominant understanding of the verses: many advocates of polygyny focus on the excerpt, 'marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four', and believe that Islam permits polygamy. These are the Textualists. Others, including many of the wives interviewed in this study, believe that polygamy is 'a religious rule' (p. 146) that cannot be changed, but is only allowed when wives can be treated equally. These are the Semi-Textualists, and many of these wives resist polygyny because their polygynous husbands do not treat them equally or fairly. This is probably the view held by most Muslims in Indonesia. Nurmila is following Saeed (2006) in this categorisation, and she uses this categorisation as an analytical tool in the ethnography that follows.
  5. At first, I was disappointed that she had borrowed this conventional insider schema, and thought that it would be less than useful for analysis. However, by the time I reached the Conclusion I realised that much had been revealed by its application, and that it allowed her to make the argument, based on the ethnographic evidence, that polygamy often leads to injustice and therefore should be abolished in a revised Indonesian Marriage Law. Nurmila does not neglect the state and its laws: she provides a survey of the history of polygyny in twentieth century Indonesia, and a more detailed coverage of the 1974 Marriage Law, and details of its implementation in both the New Order and post-Soeharto eras.
  6. The ethnographic heart of the book is the retelling of the experiences of women (and a few men) who are in polygamous marriages in Chapters Four and Five. One of the spurious justifications for the practice of polygyny—one that is increasingly common—is the claim by men that it is better to have a second (third or fourth) wife than to commit zina (adultery, a major sin). We also hear that polygamy is recommended by the Prophet (sunnah Rasul). These claims by Islamic conservatives threaten many women in Indonesia, because they increase the legitimacy of polygamy. Against such claims Nurmila sets some harrowing stories. However, the retelling of the experiences of women whose husbands secretly marry co-wives, the stories of long years of neglect, of economic, emotional and sexual favouritism, of a variety of injustices, betrayal of trust, domestic violence and so forth are not emotive or sensationalist: these representations are well done and always analysed with the main argument in mind. Another virtue is that there is no sense that polygynously married women are passive victims: these are real live women, going about their everyday lives as best they can and trying to make the best of a bad situation. However, only one of the women managed to restore her status as a monogamously married woman—and then, only with a very reduced level of trust in the relationship.
  7. I have set one of these chapters as a tutorial reading in one of my undergraduate units on gender relations in Asia. I think it makes a good contribution to educating students in Australian universities that Islam is not monolithic, and that polygamy is not necessarily a feature of Islam. It humanises Islam, and shows that a concern for social justice—for deserted wives, for polygynously married women, for many children—is at the heart of Islam.
  8. Ultimately, the argument of the book rests on the understanding that the Qur'an is divine, but its interpretation is human—and therefore fallible. Polygamy, Nurmila convincingly demonstrates, was permitted at the time of revelation as a way to provide for the welfare of the powerless; nowadays, there is no such need, and indeed the practice of polygamy creates injustice. Those who insist that the Qur'an permits polygamy are misguidedly literal in their interpretation of the Qur'an, and fail to attend to the suffering and injustice of women married polygynously. While this might sound reasonable to secular scholars, the author acknowledges that powerful conservatives, who take a literalist approach to the Qur'an, fear the liberal and contextual approach, and are actively working to enhance the legitimacy of polygamy. Nurmila argues that Muslim feminists and liberals should work for the prohibition of polygamy in Indonesia, and in this way to stigmatise those who practise it. This is a brave and political book, with a strong Muslim feminist agenda, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.


    [1] 'Polygamy' is the word used in the title of the book, and is the word most commonly used in everyday speech. It is ungendered, in that it can refer to men having more than one wife, or to women having more than one husband. 'Polygyny' is more specialised and specific, and is not commonly used in everyday language. It only refers to men having more than one wife.

Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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