It is a scene of peaceful serenity. Rows of men kneel in deep prayer inside a large hall on the outskirts of Jakarta. The women sit just behind them, their heads bowed in quiet contemplation.
It could be afternoon prayers anywhere in Indonesia, a vast Muslim-majority archipelago, but this scene happens to be inside the sprawling headquarters of Jakarta’s newest club – the “Global Ikhlwan” polygamy club.
Tucked away in a leafy suburb a few hours out of Jakarta, the club was set up in Indonesia earlier this year, but has its origins in Malaysia. It says it has more than 1,000 members worldwide – as far away as Australia and the United States.
In Indonesia, the law allows men to marry more than one woman – but only under strict conditions, which makes the practice of polygamy less common here than in other Muslim nations. But that could change if the controversial new polygamy club is a success.
The club has garnered a great deal of criticism since its inception.
But in the hall, the only sounds you can hear that disrupt the quiet are the voices of young children filling the corridors. They are being taught to read Islamic scriptures, so that they can become pious Muslims from a young age.
There is also a small shop that sells Islamic and Halal food – even a production house which makes Islamic films.
But the main aim of the club is to promote the virtues of polygamy, as well as to support those who are struggling with their choices.
In one of the club’s rooms, the director of the organisation, Dr Gina Puspita, speaks to a group of young women trying to help them get over their jealousies and insecurities.
She admits she found it hard when her husband Rizdam took on a second wife.
“It was difficult for me in the beginning, but I knew it was because of my emotions, my desires,” she told me. “But polygamy is a way for us to find happiness and love in this world.
“There are a lot of advantages for women in polygamous marriages – we learn how to control our desires and their jealousies, and this brings us closer to Allah.”
But Dr Puspita’s stance on polygamy is firmly opposed by some groups in Indonesia. This country has strict rules about who is allowed to take on multiple wives.
The guiding principle of Indonesia’s marriage law is monogamy. Polygamy is tolerated – but tightly controlled.
You have to go through a number of steps to take more than one wife.
First, you have to get your first wife’s permission. Second, if she does not give you her consent, you must prove that she is either infertile, terminally ill, or not performing her wifely duties. And finally you have to get the permission of a religious adviser.
Although there are no official statistics for how many people in Indonesia are polygamous – because so many of the marriages go unregistered – women’s groups say organisations like the polygamy club could prompt more Indonesian men to take on multiple wives.
Activist Nursyahbani Katjasungkana is incensed by the polygamy club, and she uses the Koran to try to refute claims that polygamy is an acceptable, even desirable Islamic practice.
“When the scripture revealed to the Prophet Muhammad its direction on polygamy, it was during the time of war,” she says.
“I believe it was a direction to the Muslims of that time that all the victims of war or widows and children who lost a father or a husband have to be protected. That’s the message of the scriptures – it wasn’t really a command to men to have a second or third or fourth wife.”
But that is not an interpretation Dr Gina Puspita or her family accepts. Back at her house, she’s frying up some rice and chicken for her family for lunch. She cooks while Salwa, wife number three, chops up the vegetables. It is a picture of domestic harmony, an unusual family tableau.
Her husband Rizdam tells me this system works for them. “I think polygamy is better than monogamy,” he says to me as we share the lunch his wives have cooked for us. “There are so many advantages – for men, it teaches us leadership. If it difficult to manage one wife in a marriage – but four? It is much more difficult and it is a good educational practice.”
Sign of the times
Indonesian women’s groups are calling on officials to shut the club down.
But so far the Indonesian government has said it will only monitor the club’s activities – it won’t curtail it.
Indonesia prides itself on its reputation as a tolerant Islamic nation, but many of its people are pitted against each other in an ongoing ideological battle.
The current controversy over Indonesia’s polygamy club is a sign of the struggle this country is going through – how to be Muslim and modern at the same time.
Source: BBC News