copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

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 in the world (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, te 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).

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]

Window onto polygamous life

For Indonesian spectators, the film becomes a representation about themselves. If they laugh, they actually laugh at themselves. They can see their own daily life, that of their family, their neighbors, and friends through this film. They are closely related to people who accept and reject polygamy; thus the film moves their emotions.

Indonesian films have an unique perspective, history, and point of view. Hence, to explain the impact of this one film, to place it in context, it is worth looking back on some of the trajectory of Indonesian cinema.  One of the important writers in this regard is Salim Said, author of a milestone book, Shadows on the Silver Screen: A Social History of Indonesian Film.

Salim Said discusses the problems audiences have had with nationally produced feature films:

"Moviegoers have complained vociferously about the stories as well as the presentation of Indonesian movies. By combining the gist of the various complaints and criticism, a general description of contemporary Indonesian movies emerges … Considering that the films' basic formula is mostly obtained from foreign movies, 'an Indonesian face' is obviously missing. That is why it is often difficult to accept the appearance of the actors and actresses playing Indonesian personalities. They seem wooden and unconvincing." (Said: 1991, p 3)

Said emphasizes two motivations for filmmaking in Indonesia. The first is geared to commercial gain. And the second is seen in groups motivated by a desire for self-expression who try to portray problems faced by their respective groups. Usmar Ismail, "Father of Indonesian Film," said that his third film, Darah dan Doa (Long March), was the first Indonesian film because “for the first time, a film is done all by Indonesian people, in creative-technique perspective or financial way. And, for the first time, an Indonesian film talked about a national problem.”[13]

Dinata is one of these few people who try to give expression to the problems of a group. She tries to show a film by a woman to women, a film that is about women. Her goal has been an idealistic one, to depict social "realities." It is then interesting to consider how the film becomes a window into polygamous life and the encapsulation of the lives of three typical women characters. I will apply two concepts from Said.

Said noted that Indonesian film industry has a lack of cultural identity that portrays the problems and social life of the Indonesian people. Yet he has hope:

“Even though Usmar Ismail is dead, the dream of making films that deal with Indonesian problems and issues has not yet completely died in the hearts of other filmmakers. To realize that dream, however, will be an uphill fight because the producers of Indonesian films, whether 'indigenous' or 'non indigenous,' are businessmen who are accustomed to view film only in terms of the potential for commercial gain” (Said: 1991, p 121).

Thus one of the foundations of Dinata's success is that fortunately she has had great producers and shares an idealistic dream with them. She herself has also played a role as producer in some films made by her company, Kalyana Shira Films. So she knows exactly what might be a producer’s point of view.

In doing research about polygamy for two years in order to make her script closer to reality, she first wrote newspaper articles and books on this issue, summarizing all of the pro and contra positions. But she wrote the script from a more personal position, since the experience of doing the interviews made a deep impression on her:

“I also felt the war inside the women’s hearts who had and still do experience the polygamous life of their husbands. Hence, I decided to make three female characters as central characters in this scenario.”[14]

Dinata really tries to show a multifaceted depiction of the polygamous reality in Indonesia, which has not only one face — its religious/Islamic purpose — but also another — its impact on real people's lives. Therefore, she developed three characters with three stories. The script is united by the women's inner drive; for even if these three women have different social, economical, and ethnical backgrounds, they have one goal, which is to search for happiness within big city life in Jakarta. And, in the process of searching, they have to live out a daily life within polygamy — which turns out to be three different ways of encountering polygamy, varying according to each character.

As I mentioned earlier, Dinata doesn’t take sides about the subject of polygamy. She just gives the unseen realities. What we see seem like real people, not stereotypes, and their actions rarely conform to our expectations. There are no bad guys in the film. [15] The script just throws out issues about patriarchal society, ones that only a few people take time to articulate and understand.

Salma's story

The old, sick, paralyzed father tries to communicate with his son. For weeks, he can’t speak nor move his body's left side body and just lies in bed. And for the first time, since he got a stroke. Haji Imron, the father, talks to his son Nadim, who takes care of him.

Those are the last words of Haji Imron who later dies because of a consequent heart attack. This scene continues with the voice off of Salma, Haji Imron’s first wife.

“There is no trace of anger left in Nadim’s face. His dad left him the most important advice before he died, words that Nadim had longed to hear from his father.”

This scene is near the closing scene of episode one, Salma’s story, which depicts the case of most Indonesian people who live in polygamy, that is, it's based on the practice's religious foundation.  In the script, Abah (the father, Haji Imron), marries for the second time, which he says is for the religious purpose of avoiding adultery. And as a rich national leader and religious man, he can afford to have more than one wife. Salma, finally, accepts such a polygamous life for some reasons of her own. First for her is her religion and the Islamic reason. She even defends her decision and way of life publicly on a television talk show (a very important event for her husband Abah’s political career. “My life runs well. I just go back to my religion and life as a devoted Muslimah,” she says. The second reason she does this, and in a public way, is to maintain her reputation as a professional as well as her husband and family’s name in society.

In the beginning, however, she avoids any interaction with the second wife (later on she learns that Abah has a third wife) until Abah gets sick and all of the wives gather in her house. “I am still learning to open this house’s door sincerely [to the other wives], and also to open my soul and heart.”

The other important character is Nadim, the son, who has become cynical about his dad. Nadim provides the other reason for Salma to accept polygamy, so she can devote her spirit to her life as a mother and to poor people as a doctor and owner of a little clinic. Abah's death becomes the way out for her. She has remained a wife for the rest of her husband’s life, and finally her patience pays off.

It is worth looking more closely at the practice of marriage as depicted in Salma’s story. Salma does not know about her husband’s other wives until she finds out with her own eyes at a public event. How can this happen? Indonesian law has no provision for non-religious civil marriage. Thus, a religious marriage ceremony is a legal requirement in Indonesia. To conclude a religious marriage ceremony, both prospective spouses must be of the same religion. If the fiancée is Muslim, the ceremony is held at the local Kantor Urusan Agama (KUA, the Office of Religious Affairs) that issues a Marriage Book, which becomes the legal evidence of a valid marriage. And a Muslim marriage ceremony does not need to be registered with the local Civil Registry Office . [16] Thus, a couple is legally married when they get married just in an Islamic way.

However, there is also another kind of marriage, called secret marriage practices (an Islamic term is nikah siri, not registered in KUA). It is legal before Muslim or Shariah law, or the couple could get married in another KUA. As long as the requirements are fulfilled, approval from his previous wife/wives is excluded from this regulation according to Islamic law. Abah’s second (and also third and fourth) marriage is closer to the latter practice. Since he is a religious leader, he can keep the marriage secret for a long time. Only later does his second wife appear with both him and Salma in the same public space. Since he is wealthy, he can easily go to a KUA office very far from his first wife’s residence and fulfill all the requirements, and also he has the money to rent his new wife a new house.

In many ways, Salma is a devoted muslimah; on the other hand, she rebels as a wife and lover. She should accept polygamy as a concept. But her heart rejects it. In public space, she defends her husband and polygamy but actually she enacts a quiet rebellion.

Salma always shows her true feelings when she is at home with her husband. She speaks her mind. “Is there anything wrong with me?” Salma cries out at the first time she finds out the truth. But she can’t do anything to change it. Even with her son, she always gives him excuses to validate the fact that she has another “competitor.” “It’s our fate,” she says.

In public space, even when she has lunch with friends, she offers a fake smile. When she appears on a famous talk show on public television, taking up the theme of polygamy, she defends her family. Her and her husband's dignity and the family’s reputation are the most important thing and must be protected from gossip. Since Nadim is the reason she stays strong to live this kind of life, at the end she feels relieved as she lets her son go to Aceh as a volunteer to help tsunami victims:

“I let Nadim fly free as a volunteer. And be liberated from all of absurdity of his past.”

Siti's story

With the second story, we can look inside a representation of polygamous life among poor people; in addition, in this episode, sex is the main purpose for polygamy. Siti comes from a poor family in a rural slum area to live with Pak Lik (the uncle, a distant relative) and his two wives under the same roof. Pak Lik then adds another fourth wife just for the sake of sex. Later on, we find out that he must also have gone to prostitutes for he has contaminated his wives with a venereal disease. Amazingly, the wives live together happily in one house and act as each other’s sisters. This phenomenon compares to Sitoresmi’s statement (on polygamy practitioners) in the DVD documentary: women manage their hearts and minds and keep from jealousy through empathy towards the other wives.

When Siti comes to the house, both wives of Pak Lik have already known and understood that she will become the third wife although she does not see that. And they seem happy because Siti is considerate and a good, kind, and helpful girl. Three months later, she realizes that Pak Lik wants to marry her. Since she is totally dependent on her uncle, she accepts his proposal. She just doesn’t feel comfortable refusing such a proposal because the man and his wives are very kind to her. But she doesn’t enjoy her life, not even the sexual part. Siti escapes this problem by loving (and being loved by) Dwi, the second wife. Suddenly she realizes that she is happy and doesn’t want to be under anyone’s shadow or anyone's burden. Thus, with her lesbian lover, she plans to run away. Early in the morning, with Dwi’s daughters, they flee to find a rented house far away from there, but they remain the wives of the same husband.

This story represents the open polygamous life, like Puspo Wardoyo celebrates, but for different purposes. Pak Lik marries Siti (and also, I believe, all of his wives) with an open but modest religious marriage ceremony — there, the second wife even accompanies Siti and helps her to wipe away her tears. There is no problem for the man to do that since the other two wives agree with the marriage. But, interestingly, in contrast with Salma’s husband who is an Islamic cleric who aspires to noble activities, Siti’s husband is a man who thinks that sex is the essence of life and seems to abandon Islamic teachings except for getting his religious, veiled, Aceh girl as fourth wife. In addition Pak Lik has been fooling around outside of marriage and brought back a venereal disease into the household, a kind of disregard that precipitates Siti’s departure.

Does Siti have the spirit to rebel against her situation? As the youngest wife, Siti seems helpful and kind to the entire family — the husband, two wives, and the children. First she just wants to go to the big city to study at a beauty school. But her uncle marries her and that was his original intention. She lives in a peaceful life with this husband and the other two (later, three) wives.

Actually, in psychological terms, she doesn’t like the husband-wife relationship. On her wedding night, when she is supposed to make love for the first time with this official husband, in voice over Siti says: "Tonight is the scariest night in my life." She is just being nice and obedient and does this duty as a wife and family member. She remains the kind, cheerful, and helpful Siti. With a smile on her face, she does the household chores, takes care of all the children pleasantly, and gladly gives her “bedtime” schedule to the oldest wife, who loves to have sex with their husband. In daily life, Siti pretends that nothing's happened and everything is running well.

But really she searches for love, not just sex and desire, but a gentle and warm love. And she finds such love with Dwi, the second wife. This strange feeling becomes stronger when Dwi asks Siti to join her in bed with the husband. After that, in her relation with Dwi, Siti feels pure happiness, which becomes the motive for them to leave the family and search for freedom. In voice over she says:

“I never felt so much joy in my life. No matter how many chores and laundry I have to do, I cherish my days because of sister Dwi. Every chance we got, we’d sneak into the bathroom, our place of salvation, where we release all emotions that have been repressed.”

Ming's story

Ming's story deals with so-called secret polygamy, and interestingly it comes from a minority race and religion in Indonesia. Ming is Chinese. Koh Abun, a Catholic Chinese and her boss, loves her, and actually she falls in love with him too. But, she doesn’t want to be blinded by love.

Koh Abun has a wife who becomes the manager of the restaurant and runs everything. And he considers his wife, like his Chinese faith, as a good luck charm. So he can’t divorce her. And since he is a Catholic, he didn’t dare to tell his wife about the relation so he marries Ming quietly. Ming accepts the proposal. She is tired of being poor. She wants to share in the wealth of Koh Abun. Thus she asks him for a new apartment and a new car.

In the end, when the first wife learns about their marriage, she commands Koh Abun to sell the car and new apartment. Koh Abun then gets a green card and moves to United States. The conditions of her life have strengthened Ming to follow her vocation of becoming an actress. She feels very happy because she is on her own now.

As a young ambitious girl, Ming dreams of famous actresses like Zhang Ziyi. And she knows that working as a waitress is not the path for her, so she decides to accept the marriage proposal from Koh Abun, the owner, to be his secret (second) wife. “I don’t know why, but I’m tired of being broke. I am fulfilled and relieved now with Koh Abun. And I’ve never hurt Cik Linda, either,” says Ming to Firman, a young handsome film student who has a crush on her and wants her to become the main actress in his debut film.

The Catholic custom and religion of Koh Abun forbid him to marry for the second time; not to mention Cik Linda, his official wife who is his “good luck charm” and the head of the financial department in the restaurant. Hence, Ming just pretends that everything is running like usual and marries her boss quietly. Nobody officially is told about this marriage, except that his gambling card-game group knows. But, in her heart, Ming feels disappointed. She says in voice over,

“If he were all mine, I wouldn’t mind living with him in my old tiny studio. But the situation is different and I don’t want to fall for romance.”

Actually, the fact that she has to keep silent about her marriage (including telling lies about the wedding ring) makes Ming unhappy. The idea of sharing her husband is also annoying to her. And most important, it hinders her from achieving her dream of acting in film. This is the reason why she keeps in touch with Firman, the aspiring director. In the end, when the status changed, she feels relieved. “For sure, I am going to be happier if I don’t depend on anyone,” says Ming in the closing scene.

How can a Catholic like Koh Abon take a second wife? The 1974 Marriage Law states:

"If both you and your fiancée have a Christian, Buddhist or Hindu religious wedding ceremony, you must hold the religious ceremony first, and then record the marriage with the Civil Registry Office. The Civil Registry will in turn issue a Marriage Certificate which is evidence of a legally valid wedding."[17]

The film represents Koh Abun’s character as more Chinese than Catholic. In the restaurant, there are some Chinese good luck charms. He even thinks that Cik Linda, his official wife, is a good luck charm, which is one reason that he does not want to divorce Linda. On the other hand, his religion and official law forbid him to take a second wife. So he makes a fake ID card (which states that he is still single) and bribes the officers to do this in order to get married. “I am not a Muslim who can have four wives,” he says to Ming. But Ming answers: “Bullshit! There’s a Chinese man in my hometown who has five wives.” Koh Abun simply ignores the law and his religion. Thus, Abun and Ming practice a secret polygamy.

Similarities between the cases

The film represents three different kind of polygamous lifesyles as practiced by characters from various social and educational backgrounds, religions, purposes, and ethnicities. The three main characters in the film hide their status as “victims” of polygamy. We see the different kinds of social face maintained by the female characters. The faces they show in front of the public sphere are the veiled faces, as they hide their true feelings deep in the bottom of their hearts. But when they enter private spaces, they throw away the “veils” that cover their faces, and then the real emotional frailty and disappointed feelings appear. When Salma first finds out about her “competitor,” she gets upset. “You must shower every time you set foot in this house!” she says. He replies, “Every time I do it, I always bathe. That’s what devoted Muslims must do, right?” With these words her husband tries to refresh Salma’s memory about Mandi Junub (an obligatory shower after a Muslim has sex). Salma remains firm on her opinion: “Right, but you have to take another shower here!”

People often cannot see someone's real feelings in their face, unless perhaps one's closest friends or family. However, the spectators here can sense and feel the women's problems because they tell their inner thoughts (voice off and voice over), and the visual style emphasizes their gazes and gestures, especially when they are in the private sphere. They don’t have any revolutionary actions or direct rebellion. They pretend to accept their fates, but they don’t feel comfortable with the fact that they have to share a husband. Thus, in their own way and with their own intentions, they find the way out of the problem that polygamy poses.

By the end, all of them undergo a seemingly silent rebellion. The logic of the three characters' narratives shows that the main female characters can only be full human beings when they are finally detached from men. For Salma, she explicitly says that she only felt fully herself once her husband died. For Siti, when she and her lover — the second wife — leave the household they are finally free. And Ming comes into her own not only after Koh Abun leaves for the United States, but after she realizes she has to be an actress on her own merits and talent, not depending on a male director to make her career for her.

Dinata criticizes this patriarchal system in a satiric yet soft way, instead of a provoking a direct confrontation. To do this, a comedy of manners works well. The spectators realize the injustice of the situations within society that the female main characters have faced and, in an imaginative way, come to understand that the women can live in a free and independent way without their husbands or even any male character (in Ming’s case: Firman the young director-wanna-be; in Salma’s case: Nadim). The fact that in Salma’s story the fourth wife arrives at the funeral and both Salma and Nadim react in a comic way highlights two things. First, this phenomenon could possibly happen to any woman, including the female spectators, and  second, once again comedy has succeeded in sweetening the bitter pill of instruction. The spectators can feel this kind of comedy and learn ideas through the ensemble of acting and dialogues. For example, Nadim teases his mom: “Have a feeling that dad have another one (a newcomer)?” Salma answers: “So be it, as long as they don’t bother us,” and she continues: "Let’s not make him uncomfortable as long as he’s in this house.” When Abah has a heart attack and the three wives gather, the cynical Nadim comments: “Finally dad got his wish. Here, all of his wives are gathered together in the same room.” Salma replies ironically, "Maybe they'll all come to your graduation." Or when they bury Abah and the fourth wife appears with her little baby, the second and third wives get confused and uncomfortable and try to communicate in awkward way. Then Salma and Nadim have a little chat:

In Ming’s case, there is a scene when Koh Abun wants to pick his official wife from the airport (after visiting their children in USA), Ming teases him:

Stronger wives, negative husbands

Any depiction of rebellious female characters fighting for their rights or negative male characters were rarely shown in New-Order cinema. Before the Reformation era, women were represented as silent, passive, powerless or negative. Krishna Sen argues that some genres of Indonesian films precisely are based on seeing the woman but not having the woman seeing or speaking (Sen 1994: 134). Women are represented in small and unimportant parts.

“…some genres such as ‘historical’, ‘martial arts’, ‘crime’, and ‘comedy’ are on the whole about men and what the films define as men’s desires and men’s sphere of action” (Sen 1994: 135-136).

On screen, women were most commonly seen in domestic settings, dependent on and defined by the male protagonist (Sen 2008). Sita Aripurnami quotes feminist Myra Diarsi who claims that in Indonesian films at the time,

“…the acceptable woman is one who marries and lives beneath a man’s shelter, whereas the woman who attempts to stand on her own is cursed and presented as an example of failure in life” (Jufri (eds.) 1992: 33).

Aripurnami adds that marriage is seen in terms of the man being in control and the woman yielding to his control (Jufri (eds.) 1992: 34). The stereotypical views of women still depict women who suffer from one problem and one problem only: love (Jufri (eds.) 1992: 42). Aripurnami argues:

"In Indonesian films, married women with children and a successful career are never shown as role-figures to emulate. A woman with a career who aspires to fulfill her personal ambitions is a selfish woman whose behavior will poorly affect the wellbeing and unity of her family. Her husband will be attracted to other women; her children will go astray and turn out to be delinquents" (Jufri (eds.) 1992: 42).

In another article, Aripurnami mentions that apparently a working woman is accepted for as long as she can manage to combine her job with the household and the care of the children (Oey-Gardiner & Bianpoen 2000, 53).

In some Post-Suharto Indonesian cinema, as Clark Marshall asserts, whereas the female characters become stronger, male characters are often negative and weak (Marshall 2004, 124). Negative male figures, for example, often are in plots that contain incidents of sexual harassment and domestic violence (Ada Apa dengan Cinta, What’s Up with Love, Rudi Soedjarwo, 2001) or are depicted as irresponsible husbands and fathers who abandoned their families (Pasir Berbisik). Other films concentrate on the sense of aimlessness and alienation felt by the emerging post-New Order generation of Indonesian men (Jelangkung, The Uninvited/ Ouji Board Ghosts, Rizal Mantovani and Jose Purnowo, 2001) (Marshall 2004: 124).

The phenomena I mention above did not occur in the New Order regime because President Suharto enforced a patriarchal political system called Bapakisme (Fatherism). And although depictions of “female nature” in New Order cinema were ultimately sanctified in reproduction (motherhood), "female nature" also appeared to be constantly in danger of being perverted (Sen 1994, 138). To enforce a concept of "correct" women's roles, the government spread the ideology of “azas kekeluargaan” (Family Principle) and Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga (PKK, Family Welfare Movement) as released by the Directorate General for Rural Development, Jakarta, in 1978. PKK describes the five obligations of women (Panca Dharma Wanita), and prescribes for Indonesian women the following five roles: (Oey-Gardiner & Bianpoen 2000:58)

The father has a position as a pivotal figure, the ruler and leader of the household. Mothers and wives are considered “ikut suami” (follow the husbands), and “Ratu Rumah Tangga” (Queen of the Household). Social and Education activist Henny Supolo Sitepu claims that the term Ratu Rumah Tangga — considered a noble role by New Order government  — is “an empty title.” She underlines that women often have no choice but to accept the role already socially assigned (Oey-Gardiner & Bianpoen 2000: 189-190).

From a political standpoint, the role of mothers and wives underwent housewifisation and domestication. For Maria Mies, housewifisation is

“a process by which women are socially defined as housewives, dependent for their sustenance on the income of their husbands; irrespective of whether they are de facto housewives or not. The social definition of housewives is the counterpart of the social definition of men as breadwinners, irrespective of their actual contribution to their families’ subsistence” (quoted in Suryakusuma 2004: 162-163).

Julia Suryakusuma calls it State Ibuism, a theory adopted from Maria Mies’ housewifisation, Madelon Djajadiningrat’s Ibuism, and a keyword approach to the state developed by Michael van Langenberg (Suryakusuma 2004: 162). State Ibuism means the domestication of Indonesian women (Suryakusuma 2004: 166). The image of an ideal woman is that of someone ‘accepting their natural role’ as wife and mother, fully and solely responsible for the social development of her children. And there is almost no recognition of women as individuals (Oey-Gardiner & Bianpoen 2000: 17).

Under the New Order Regime, the state also often defined itself as a “family,” as expressed in its propagation of azas kekeluargaan (the family principle) (Suryakusuma 2004: 169). Bapak (father) is the primary source of power and ibu (mother) is one of the media which expresses this power. And, of course, President Suharto is the ultimate Bapak (Suryakusuma 2004: 169). So, the father and husband role was supposed to be represented in the man's good behavior and attitude.

As a post-New-Order film, Love for Share depicts life as functioning in the opposite way. It breaks New Order patriarchal ideology. A mother no longer becomes the medium or conduit for husband/father power. The mothers and wives do not “ikut suami” (follow the husbands). Even though there are no revolutionary actions, silently the women rebel in their own way. The female characters become stronger, and male characters weaken or are depicted as having negative attitudes.At the same time the film also criticize the phenomena and discourses that recur after the downfall of Suharto, namely the institution and practice of polygamy. The film has a clear standpoint that critiques its own era.

In Salma’s case, the script's critique breaks the housewification system and proves that a career woman can be an ideal female character and can fulfill her highest idealism by building and running an affordable medical clinic for women.

In Siti’s case, the fact that there are so many little female children in that tiny house comically underlines patriarchal ideology. Pak Lik wants a boy and he will always try to have one. One scene depicts how Pak Lik hopes that the baby inside his first wife, Sri, will be a boy. A boy, a future man, is the center of patriarchal system; he will be a husband or a father who always controls his daughter and wife. Indeed, Pak Lik is an useful figure to represent Bapakisme. In a scene, after making love with his fourth wife, Pak Lik sits in the sofa and commands: “Coffee would be good…”. One of the wives goes to kitchen in a hurry to make him a cup of coffee. And Siti’s voice over ironically comments: “Pak Lik acts like an emperor with his concubines. He doesn’t realize that there’s a disease he transmitting to all of us…”

In Ming’s case, it is not Koh Abun who has the control, but he is a tool for Ming to achieve her dreams (get out from poverty, get a new apartment and car, quit waitressing, and pursue an acting career). “Koh Abun is not the only man in my life, but he understands all of my needs,” Ming's voice over says. And in this segment, the very idea that a mistress can be a protagonist in this way effects a huge change in the Indonesian cinema scene.


Surely the fact of polygamous life in Indonesia is a not very well hidden public secret. Still most people do not really know about life inside polygamous families, or the reasons why some women want to be second, third, or fourth wives. Both Nia Dinata and the film try to answers these questions: “Why do those female characters want to practice polygamy?” “How do polygamous families live their daily lives?” The film explores an inner reality beneath the surface, that of women's feelings and lives as they experience the shaping effect of polygamy. On the other hand, in a more sociological way, the film replicates a kind of national reality based on or inspired by three female characters that Dinata actually found in her two years of doing research on the issue. As Post-Suharto cinema, the film has succeeded in breaking the State Ibuism and Bapakism propaganda formerly embodied in the New Order’s patriarchal ideology.

One aspect of the current situation that the film clearly presents is that there are difficulties for the other characters (who in effect represent most people in Indonesia) to know these "insider" stories of polygamy since all of the main female characters always hide their own feelings toward the issue when they appear in public space. They have their own reasons. But the film uses these three narratives to show how, with their own way and style, all the women protagonists protest their situation. They rebel against polygamy, silently, in secret. Salma keeps the “secret” until Abah dies. Siti runs away with Dwi. Ming, since Abun left, feels free to chase her dream as an actress. In the end, all of the female main characters are independent of all of the male characters.

Although polygamy is a controversial issue, as I elaborated in the first paragraphs, the film has been broadly welcomed. In fact, Love for Share became the official selection from Indonesia for the 2006 Academy Awards. The comedy of manners approach makes the film a safe place, and Dinata shows the reasons of polygamy's practitioners.


1. I am grateful to Chuck Kleinhans for his suggestions for strengthening this essay.

2. There were some pro and contra positions related to this marriage. "Polygamy is halal (allowed in Islam). Extramarital affairs are haram (forbidden)," said one of their posters, according to the Internet site below. Moments later, another group of women marched at the same location, shouting anti-polygamy slogans. They chanted to the tune of a well-known children's song:

"One, I love my mother. Two, I love my father. Three, I love my brothers and sisters. One, two, three, I reject polygamy."

Please check: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20965272-1702,00.htm.

On the fall of Aa’ Gym, James B Hoesterey writes:

"Heartbroken and betrayed, his followers staged a backlash and the event became a national scandal. Infotainment shows and gossip magazines circulated stories of female followers who shredded his pictures, boycotted his television shows, and cancelled weekend pilgrimages to his Islamic school and ‘spiritual tourism’ complex, Daarut Tauhiid (DT). Pressured by hundreds of protest text messages, SBY ordered a review of the national marriage law. Gymnastiar lost his pending television contracts; his business empire started to crumble, and DT became a ghost town."

Please check: http://www.insideindonesia.org/content/view/1011/47/

3. Islam Religion, 27 February, 2009. http://www.islamreligion.com/articles/325 .

4. The Jakarta Post, 25 February, 2009. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2007/06/28/religious-officials-say-polygamy-not-basic-right-muslims.html-0.

5. Please check: http://www.indonesiamatters.com/857/abdullah-aa-gym-gymnastiar/

6. Islam Religion, 27 February 2009. http://www.islamreligion.com/articles/325.

7. Gerakan Reformasi (Reformation Movement) was a popular rebellion that gave rise to an enormous change in the political situation of Indonesia: the downfall of President Suharto’s regime (1966-1998) in May 1998. In political terms, the Reformation demanded greater democracy, honesty and accountability in public life, and policies that secure people’s welfare (Budiman (eds.) 1999: 73)

8. Please check: : http://www.twitchfilm.net/archives/009347.html

9. Wikipedia, 26 February 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comedy_film.

10. Britannica, 26 February 2009. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/362554/comedy-of-manners .

11. Kusrini, Asmayani. “Selamat untuk Nia Dinata!” ("Congratulations to Nia Dinata") in Rumahfilm.org, November 12th 2007.

12. Dinata also makes social statements through her portrayal of how people handled the tsunami. For example, she tells about finding trusted donation institutions, or pointing out some political leaders or celebrities who use the issues for their own popularity by asking journalist to go with them.

13. “Pengantar ke Dunia Film” ("An Introduction to Film World") in Usmar Ismail Mengupas Film (Usmar Ismail on Film). Jakarta: Pustaka Sinar Harapan, 1986, second edition. My translation.

14. Quoted in Polygamy Phenomenon in Love for Share, Indonesia, dir. Nia Dinata, 2006. In an interview written in English, Dinata said:

"I’ve been observing the phenomenon of polygamy in my country since I was in my pre-teen years. A lot of women in my family discussed it and I often eavesdropped. I saw sadness in their eyes and they accepted the condition although when it came to discussing it among women they trust, they were able to tell their true feelings and disappointments. I guess this mades me curious and my concern grew until I decided I had to write a script about it and direct this film."

There are also similar statements in the DVD documentary. See : http://www.cinemawithoutborders.com/news/127/ARTICLE/1209/2007-03-03.html.  

15. This situation affirms Karl Heider’s theory in Indonesian Cinema, National Culture on Screen. When discussing the basic moral conflict of a culture, Heider wrote that instead of good-evil binary position, Indonesian films prefer binaries of order-disorder. He highlights the fact that Indonesian movies usually do not have bad guys.

“The Indonesian figures create disorder, confusion, chaos … Order and disorder. This is the key to much of Indonesian life” (Heider, Karl. Indonesian Cinema, National Culture on Screen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991, p 35).

16. U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. http://www.usembassyjakarta.org/consular/ACSMARRIAGE.html. 25 February 2009. Also check: http://www.expat.or.id/info/validityofmarriage.html

17. U.S. Embasy in Jakarta. http://www.usembassyjakarta.org/consular/ACSMARRIAGE.html. Also check: http://www.expat.or.id/info/validityofmarriage.html



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Internet references












Rumahfilm.org, November 12th 2007.




Berbagi Suami (Love for Share, Indonesia, dir. Nia Dinata, 2006)

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