Demonstrations supporting and protesting polygamy, especially in the cases of Abdullah Gymnastiar and the Polygamy Award

K.H. Abdullah Gymnastiar and his two wives at a press conference related to his second marriage

Puspo Wardoyo, the man behind the Polygamy Award, and his four wives

ACover of Berbagi Suami / Love for Share DVD for Malaysian market. The term “Pawagam” (Panggung, Wayang dan Gambar, Stage-Shadow-Image) is a Malay term for cinema. The film's international distributor is Red Films.

In 2006 Dinata produced Perempuan Punya Cerita (Chants of the Lotus), an omnibus project directed by four women, including Dinata. This film and a documentary called Pertaruhan (At Stake, 2008) indicate that Dinata continues to speak up on gender issues.

In the DVD’s special features is a documentary called Polygamy Phenomenon. There, Puspo Wardoyo is also interviewed.

Sitoresmi is interviewed, representing a woman who practices polygamy.

Nia Dinata, while directing the film.

In the first episode, the politician Abah has a stroke, and all his three wives gather. Second wife, Indri, tries to compete with first wife, Salma, by managing everything, including providing a traditional/alternative shaman for Abah in Salma’s house without permission.

The third episode offers another approach to polygamy in this comedy of manners. In public space, Koh Abun and Cik Linda seem to be a great couple. For Abun, Linda is his good luck charm, and for Linda, Abun is the only man who does not seem to have a crush on Ming. But the lovers Ming and Koh Abun have other plans.

Sometimes the characters from the three different stories meet. For example, Abah is a loyal costumer of Abun’s restaurant. In this scene, Ming meets Abah and his second wife …

…a minute after she'd served Salma, Abah's first wife.

Arisan! (The Gathering) is Dinata's first film to achieve both commercial and critical success.

Arisan! (The Gathering) presents stories of middle-class working women and a gay man who's coming out.


The curious cases of Salma, Siti, and Ming: representations of Indonesia’s polygamous life in Love for Share

by Ekky Imanjaya

Even in Indonesia, the country with the biggest Muslim population (around 182.5-195 million, that is 88% of Indonesian citizens), the concept of “polygamy” always becomes controversial when publicly discussed; it provokes pro and contra debates, even demonstrations among Indonesian scholars, leaders, and communities.[1][open endnotes in new window] For example, in 2006, K.H. Abdullah Gymnastiar was one of the most popular Islamic leaders, the head of Pesantren Daarul Tauhid (an Islamic boarding school) in Bandung, and the owner and head of many companies such as a publishing company, a radio station, a local television station, and a training center. When he married for the second time, it disappointed many Muslims, especially women. People wondered, “Why would a preacher who promotes the concept of Keluarga Sakinah (peaceful family) enter into a second marriage with a beautiful woman for no other important or urgent purpose?” One by one his companies went bankrupt. Many of his followers (jamaah) left him, and almost nobody wanted to see him on national television or invite him to various important Islamic feasts and events.[2]

On the other hand, as a pro-polygamy statement, there is an interesting event called “Polygamy Award.” In July 2003 Puspo Wardoyo, a restaurants owner with four wives, first put on the event. His idea behind such a ceremony is to bring polygamy and its practitioners out of the closet, so to speak, and to celebrate polygamy’s virtue as a respected Islamic tradition that should be a source of pride rather than shame for both men and women. Some members of Indonesian women’s right organizations, including some with an Islamic orientation protested against the award. Around 850 protestors showed up at the hotel where the award ceremony was held. Pro and contra discussions on television and in newspapers and magazines occurred before and after the event (Brenner: 2006, 164-165). For Wardoyo — the jovial president of the Indonesian Polygamy Society (Masyarakat Poligami Indonesia) — polygamy serves as a means of combating such evils as prostitution and adultery and proves to be an excellent way for financially secure men like himself to spread their wealth around so that more women can enjoy comfortable lives (Suryono 2003 in Brenner: 2006, 166):

"God had endowed men with greater sexual desires than women, he asserted (as did many others who supported polygamy), and multiple marriages were the only legitimate way to channel those desires." (Brenner: 2006, 164).

In a magazine interview related to the award, Wardoyo continues his philosophy:

“A man who can afford it financially and who is of good character has the duty to have more than one wife. Polygamy is the most praiseworthy of actions … I want to spread the polygamy virus.” (Brenner: 2006, 164)

The concept of polygamy, indeed, is one of Islam's teachings. The verses are so clear about it, and the Muslim scripture, the Quran, place strict restrictions upon its practice:

“… marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one.” (Quran, Annisa: 3)[3]

However, another verse in the same chapter warns: "(You) will never be able to be fair and just among your women, even if it is your ardent desire...";  and this 129th verse should be highlighted for those men who want to undertake a second, third, or fourth marriage. Within Islam, there are some interpretations regarding the term “able to deal justly with them.” Indonesia’s recent Religious Affairs Minister Maftuh Basyuni underlines that Islam promotes monogamy in marriage, with polygamy neither a responsibility for Muslims nor a basic right:

"Islam is basically monogamous in nature, but in some limited and rare conditions polygamy is tolerated."[4]

Even the industrialist mentioned above, Aa’ Gym (Big Brother Gym, nickname for Gymnastiar) stated in a press conference about his second marriage:

“Polygamy is clearly allowed by God, but it is not recommended. Polygamy can be used in certain moments as an emergency exit.”[5]

How about the status of the wives? That is stated in a web site for Islamic thought:

"The Muslim is not permitted to differentiate between his wives in regards to sustenance and expenditures, time, and other obligations of husbands. Islam does not allow a man to marry another woman if he will not be fair in his treatment. Prophet Muhammad forbade discrimination between the wives or between their children. Also, marriage and polygamy in Islam is a matter of mutual consent. No one can force a woman to marry a married man. Islam simply permits polygamy; it neither forces nor requires it. Besides, a woman may stipulate that her husband must not marry any other woman as a second wife in her prenuptial contract."[6]

Marshall Clark writes that most Indonesian women, including many Muslim women who recognize that polygamy is sanctioned in the Quran, strongly disagree with the idea. On the other hand, some women support it, even if they are deeply unhappy that their own husband has taken a second or third wife. (Clark: 2008, 39). According to Blackburn,

"For some Islamic conservatives, polygamy is something to be proud of, the badge of a devout Muslim" (Blackburn 2004: 134).

Various discourses around polygamy could never be openly discussed in Suharto’s New Order government era (1966-1998). In May 1998, the Reformation movement led to the downfall of the Suharto dictatorship era[7] and people began to experience more freedom of speech and expression. As Brenner describes the influence of this moment on contemporary discussions of polygamy,

“Ironically, it was Indonesia’s transition toward democracy after the fall of the Suharto regime that made it possible for the ever-smiling restaurateur [Puspo Wardoyo] to take his campaign to the Indonesian public." (Brenner: 2006, 165)

In the New Order regime, monogamy was forced on people as legalizing one and only marriage. For example, the 1974 Marriage Law makes monogamy the official norm, facilitates divorce for women and makes it more difficult for men, and stipulates a minimum age for marriage. (Blackburn: 2004, 222). That law, strongly opposed by some Islamic factions, imposed restrictions on polygamy (including a requirement that a would-be polygamist obtain permission from the first wife before marrying again) and declared monogamy as the foundation of Indonesian marriages (Brenner: 2006, 165).

In 1983, one important regulation was added: it required civil service employees including high-ranking officials to seek permission from their superiors as well as their wives if they wanted a polygamous marriage or a divorce. (Blackburn: 2004, 133; Brenner: 2006, 165-166). Under the 1983 regulations, polygamy was permitted only under limited circumstances, such as the inability of the first wife to bear children. In short, the Suharto government made it difficult to engage in polygamy (Brenner: 2006, 166).

In the Reformation era, polygamy — a risky and taboo issue — re-occurs as a fact of social life. For example, President Megawati, the daughter of a polygamous first President and herself the President of Republic of Indonesia from 2001-2004, turned a blind eye to concerns about polygamy. In fact, her Vice-President, Hamzah Haz, leader of an Islamic party, has three wives although the 1974 marriage law has remained in effect and Haz took his third wife while still in the office. (Brenner: 2006, 166). This kind of de facto openness in politicians' behavior attests to the state’s current lack of interest in the issue. In response, many women’s organizations fear this public tolerance has allowed polygamy to gain ground. That some men openly flaunt their polygamous status and claim it as evidence of their Islamic identity has alarmed many women (Jakarta Post, 30 July 2003, in Blackburn: 2004, 136).

Voices against polygamy include Musdah Muslia, an Islamic scholar from the Liberal Islam Network... … and Tommy F. Awuy, feminist and philosopher.
Scholars who give professional opinions include Dr. Boyke Dian Nugraha, sexologist, and… … Yati Lubis, psychologist and ex Dean of the Faculty of Psychology, University of Indonesia .

Currently there are constant pros and cons expressed on the issue, as I already elaborated earlier in the cases of Puspo Wardoyo and Abdullah Gymnastiar. However, there are some Muslim women’s organizations, while unwilling to speak out against the institution of polygamy, who wish to see what they considered "abuses" of polygamy eradicated to protect women. (Blackburn: 2004, 111-112). There are also some prominent Islamic reformers, who now take the line that polygamy was something suited to the Prophet’s time but is no longer necessary today.

I am particularly interested in how Indonesian cinema can now portray polygamous life. Berbagi Suami (literally Husband for Share with an official international title as Love for Share), directed by Nia Dinata, 2004, is a post-New-Order Indonesian film that explores various aspects of polygamy from the wives' point of view within its comic plot. The script presents three different stories about three different situations and does so in a sort of black comedy or satiric way. The DVD also has a documentary about the issues that are raised in the fictions.

Dinata tries to depict the phenomenon of polygamous life. In Polygamy Phenomenon, the DVD documentary, she states:

“I just want to communicate with an audience, with people, and give them a slice of life. I don’t want to make propaganda for or against polygamy.”

She did two years research first about why women might accept a polygamous lifestyle. She concludes:

“They have their own personal reasons for why they practice polygamy, with reasons that we can’t understand unless we experience it ourselves.”

She finally developed three stories from three different illustrative examples. First is an educated Muslim woman, with religious motives. Second is a naïve but forward-thinking village girl with a sex-obsessed husband who brings her to live with his two wives in the city. Third is an urban Chinese teenager who works as a waitress and becomes her boss' mistress so as to find a shortcut to fulfill her wish, to become an actress. These characters — Salma, Siti, and Ming — represent salient models of the practice of polygamy that Dinata found in her research.

Although she works in a comic mode, Dinata says she wants to put a slice of life in her movie, which in some ways could be called striving toward realism. If we want to understand what that "realism" might mean for her, we might well look at how an older film critic, Roy Armes, classified three major cinematic approaches to reality —uncovering the real, imitating the real, and questioning the real. He writes:

"From the first of these stems the evolution of a realist aesthetic and a whole tradition of works in which the aim is quite simply to show the world as it is. The artist’s prime concern is not to invent or to imagine, but to place people, objects, setting, and experiences as directly as possible in front of the camera and to make the audience see. The second tradition — which is almost as old as the first — discards this direct link with reality and fastens instead on the film’s power to offer a resemblance or imitation of life. The resemblance is used not as an end in itself but as a means of creating satisfying fictions. It is the cinema’s role as the universal storyteller that gave rise to Hollywood and prompted the growth of a world-wide entertainment industry. Since the prime purpose of the cinema is seen here to be the narrative function, reality in an unmediated form is an irrelevance. Verisimilitude is more relevant than realism, but the power of the medium to sustain an illusion is more important than either" (Armes 1974: 10-11).

In my opinion, the third approach, “the questioning of the real,” is what Dinata wants to portray to explore an inner reality beneath the surface. Armes expands on this aspect:

The third, and perhaps least-developed, tradition is that of using film not to convey surface reality or to sustain a make-believe but to explore an inner reality beneath the surface. This means using the dreamlike aspects of the film experience — the darkened room and the bright hypnotic images — in a way which reduces objects and people to mere ciphers deprived of independent existence. Theoretically at least, from this point of view, the cinema is a most exciting medium for the expression of modernist ideas: creating its own space-time continuum, mixing the real and the fictional, objective narration and subjective viewpoint, and building up a multiple perspective in the manner of a cubist painting” (Armes 1974: 10-11).

Although visually Love for Share is not modernist in a "dreamlike" way, it does both present an illusion of reality and explore an inner reality. Therefore, as I use the term realism in this paper I consider both aims, how the film explores its characters' inner reality and how it depicts aspects of social reality.

Although polygamy is a very sensitive and controversial issue, Indonesian spectators have enthusiastically received the film. And it has had broad critical acclaim. The film won several awards in Indonesia, including at the 2006 Indonesian Film Festival (Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film), 2006 Bandung Film Forum (Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Director, Best Actress), and Best Movie at MTV Indonesia Movie Awards 2006. And, interestingly, the film was Indonesia's submission for the 2006 Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards.[8]

In my opinion, the film's acceptance may be due to the following reasons. First, Dinata says she had no intention to judge or take sides and get trapped into pro-contra debates. Second, she uses a comedy of manners approach. This subgenre satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class, often represented by stock characters, who enact a comic plot often concerned with an illicit love affair or some other scandal.[9] This kind of film concerns social mores and the question of whether or not characters meet certain social standards, and often the governing social standard is morally trivial but exacting.[10] By using such a traditional comic structure, she can incorporate dilemmas and social situations that seem both safely outside people's lives yet strikingly familiar.  That is why I can say the film incorporates elements of both genre comedy and realism.

On Love for Share

When the jury of 34th International Independent Film Festival Brussels announced Nia Dinata as the best director, everybody at Grand Salle Centre Culturel remained silent. They did not recognize the name. But when the title of the film was mentioned, the people applauded. The President of Jury, Dan Cukier, said that Dinata was successful in introducing a local yet universal issue.[11] The year after, the Festival put on a program focusing on Indonesian Cinema.

Love for Share is Nia Dinata's third film. In the Post-New-Order cinema scene in Indonesia, she is a well-known director and producer who consistently deals with gender issues in films such as Ca Bau Kan (2001, The Courtesan) and Arisan (2003, The Gathering). She is also the producer of Perempuan Punya Cerita (2007, translated as Women’s Stories, with the commercial title of Lotus of Chants), an omnibus project directed by four female directors including herself. As producer, she has produced films such as Janji Joni (Joni’s Promise, 2005, dir. Joko Anwar) andthe sex-comedy Quickie Express (2007, dir. Dimas Djayadiningrat). In 2008, she produced Pertaruhan (At Stake, 2009) an omnibus documentary on gender issues. Recently, a distributor has launched The Nia Dinata DVD collection, the first Indonesian director’s boxed set, which consists of four films directed by Dinata.

Love for Share honestly describes a sensitive and controversial theme among Indonesian people,  something considered a public secret: how families conduct a polygamous life. Actually, many people in Indonesia don’t really know about daily life for those living in a polygamous family (Badalu & Kusumaningrum: 2006, p 41). And Dinata’s film, through the style of a comedy of manners, looks at the problem from women’s perspective, the main female characters. For that reason, her script pointedly uses as a key element the voice off and voice over of the main women characters.

Dinata uses multiple-plot storytelling, just like Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu in Amores Perros, 24 Grams, and Babel. Love for Share consists of three stories of three women, from three different backgrounds (cultural, religious, racial, social class, etc). Each of them has the same problem, which is to share their husbands’ love and attention with (several) other women. The film represents their troubles and internal conflicts. During the course of the film, these women find answers to their problems and sometimes even meet each other, without realizing that they share a similar problem. Their stories are told as separate but are united by the theme and the women's attitude of both acceptance and rebellion, since all three have a rebellious spirit against their husbands. These stories are also united by reference to the tsunami disaster of December 2004.

First is Salma, a Muslim gynecologist, who stoically suffers as her famous husband (a religious leader, successful businessman, and political leader as well) collects two additional wives, but she eventually manages to achieve a state of bemused resignation about it all. The second story traces the life of Siti, a village girl, brought by her uncle to take courses and study hairdressing in Jakarta. Her uncle is a poor film-crew driver who supports two wives and a covey of kids who are all living together in a poor two-room house. And then she becomes his third wife, as the other wives predicted from when they first saw her. All wives get along together well under one roof although two of them finally escape to live on their own as a lesbian couple. The third story is about Ming, who soon becomes the mistress of her boss, a Chinese Catholic who owns a famous restaurant.

The three female main characters meet each other almost unintentionally. Salma and family are a loyal costumer of Koh Abun’s (Ming’s husband's) roasted-duck restaurant. Siti takes her fellow wife to a clinic owned by Salma. Siti and Dwi take the taxi that previously was taken by Ming, as they meet outside the house in a poor, dirty street. All women experience the same problem, polygamy, without knowing each other’s situation. They are also interwoven by the theme of the tsunami in Aceh in 2004. Salma and Siti watch it on television. In the first plot episode, Salma lets her son, Nadim, to go there as a volunteer. Before her husband got a stroke, he and Salma were planning to go and help the victims. In the second plot episode, Siti’s husband went to Aceh as a driver for an international documentary company, and later he brings a girl from Aceh as his fourth wife. And in the third episode, Ming talks about this disaster and wants to donate to relief efforts there.[12]

The 2004 tsunami disaster connects the characters in Love for Share. A TV talkshow with Salma as a speaker is interrupted for a live report. Abah suddenly arranges for his political team and even a Hercules plane to visit the disaster area for political ends. Nadim watches TV news about the tsunami, and he wonders why politicians and celebrities, particularly his father, go to Aceh just to promote their own purposes, have press conferences, take pictures, and go home. But, before going there in person, Abah gets a stroke. In the hospital elevator Nadim and Salma meet Indri. They wonder who this wife is that Abah planned to travel with — since Salma had rejected Abah’s invitation, and Indri was not asked by Abah to accompany him. Nadim finally goes to Aceh in person to volunteer to help the people in need.
Pak Lik and all his wives, including Siti, watch TV news about the Aceh tsunami. Soon, Pak Lik is hired by an international documentary crew to help film the aftermath of the disaster. When he returns, he brings back Santi from Meulaboh as his fourth wife. Ming talks to Koh Abun about the event and wants to donate some money. Abun, reading the news from a Chinese newspaper, suggests how she might pick a responsible, trustworthy organization for her donation.

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