Polygamy in Indonesia is legal, but the law discourages polygamy and restricts its practice (see box). Despite this, many Muslim men disobey the law by keeping their additional marriages secret. In response to the restrictions and unregistered polygamy, since early 2000, a Javanese entrepreneur, Puspo Wardoyo, has actively promoted polygamy amongst Indonesian Muslims. With four wives himself, Puspo has used the greater media freedom since reformasi to push his pro-polygamy agenda.
Who is Puspo Wardoyo?
Puspo Wardoyo was born in 1957 in Solo, Central Java. After graduating from university he became a teacher in Riau, where in 1979 he married his first wife, Rini Purwanti (born 1963). Unsatisfied with his small teacher’s salary, he moved to Medan in 1991 and opened a small barbecued chicken business. The business became popular after a journalist wrote an article praising his chicken, and sales increased from three or four to 200 chickens a day.
Puspo and Rini had been married for 17 years when Puspo took a second wife. He claims he still loves Rini, but adds, ‘my desire for other women increased when I became rich.’ He married his second wife, Supiyanti, in 1996, after opening his second restaurant, and his third wife, Anisah Nasution, after acquiring his third restaurant in 1997. In 1999, owning seven restaurants, Puspo married Intan Ratih Tri Laksmi. All of Puspo’s additional wives are former restaurant employees. Rini, Anisah and Intan have tertiary degrees.
Puspo’s wives all support his campaign. Says Rini, ‘To this day, I keep trying to enlighten society about polygamy because many Muslims cannot accept it yet.’ Third wife Anisah adds, ‘Polygamy has many advantages for those who can accept it. Polygamy has made my life better and increased my status from employee to the boss’s wife.’
After his fourth marriage, Puspo began campaigning for polygamy, using Qur’anic verses, hadiths (reported practice of the Prophet Muhammad) and arguing that polygamy is part of syariah (Islamic law). Several Muslim scholars and Muslim leaders backed his campaign. Puspo also employs a journalist, Eko Suryono, a columnist from Jawa Pos Radar Solo, to publicise his campaign and promote his restaurants. Puspo’s most controversial activity was sponsoring the 2003 Polygamy Awards.
The Polygamy Awards
There have been two Polygamy Award events. The first was organised by the Muslim Journalists Forum (MJF), and held in May 2003 in the office of Amanah, a magazine that promotes Islamic values to middle and upper-class women. MJF initiated the awards to counter the focus on Inul Daratista, the dangdut singer and dancer who attracted widespread media interest for her sensual dancing. MJF also wanted to defend polygamy against criticism by women activists. Puspo was chosen for the award because of his willingness to support polygamy, including by paying for spots on television, sponsoring seminars and founding a pro-polygamy organisation in Solo.
Puspo attended the ceremony with three of his wives. He explained, ‘I eat vegetables, swim and run in the morning to keep myself fit. Believe me, the more wives you have, the more control you have over your lust and the more varieties of sexual style you have.’ He concluded, ‘After practising polygamy, my business developed. I believe that this is God’s reward for practising polygamy.’ He argued that if wives supported their husbands’ polygamy, their husbands wouldn’t have extramarital liaisons.
Puspo later set up a committee to organise a larger scale Polygamy Awards. The Awards aimed to promote ‘transparent polygamy’, where the husband lets his established wife or wives know of his new marriage and advises when he will visit each wife, rather than having secret marriages.
Puspo Wardoyo’s Polygamy Award night was held in July 2003, in Arya Duta, a five-star hotel in Jakarta. Only half of the 300 invited guests turned up. However, a further 850 uninvited guests attended. Committee members wore a pin with Puspo’s photograph on it. A large photograph of Puspo and his four wives served as a backdrop for the stage. Several famous female artists played an important role in the event, and 37 men were given awards. Three books praising polygamy, sponsored by Puspo, were distributed. Puspo spent more than Rp 1 billion (approximately A$ 200,000) on the occasion. He believes that this was part of his jihad fi sabiilillah (sacrifice in the way of God).
Among the uninvited guests was a group of protestors. Hundreds of men and women calling themselves Suara Nurani untuk Perempuan (Voice of Conscience for Women) gathered outside the hotel in protest against the Awards. They said it was wrong to perceive polygamy as part of Islam. Protestors carried a placard bearing the words ‘Monogamy Yes, Polygamy No’. One protestor asserted that if government officials had many wives, they would likely siphon off government money to support their extended families.
Polygamy becomes a hot topic
The Polygamy Awards attracted widespread media attention and Puspo became an instant celebrity. The issue of Amanah which ran a story on Puspo’s views on polygamy and the experiences of his wives sold out. Puspo cleverly linked his campaign for polygamy with his restaurant business, resulting in an expansion to a franchise of 33 restaurants in 2004.
Polygamy also became a hotly debated topic in the media. Strong opinions were expressed both for and against it. Nurul Arifin, an actress and advocate for women’s rights, held a seminar at the Hotel Indonesia to counter the Polygamy Awards. One of the speakers was Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, the sultan of Yogyakarta and the only Javanese ruler not to practise polygamy. His wife, GKR Hemas, spoke to a women’s meeting in Malang, focusing on the effects of polygamy on women and children.
Letters to the press indicated distaste for the cult-like status of Puspo, even amongst those who support polygamy. Some readers condemned Puspo for advocating men’s sexual exploitation of women. Others commented that polygamy was mubah (permitted), not sunnah (recommended) according to Islam. They pointed out that the Prophet Muhammad was not a proponent of polygamy, but criticised men who had eight wives, asking them to restrict their wives to four.
After the Awards, some government officials and artists became open about their polygamous marriages. The actress Sitoresmi Prabuningrat (now third wife of musician Deby Nasution and former second wife of the poet Rendra) stated that polygamy had helped her career, because it meant she spent less time helping her husband. She also said polygamy was a solution when the number of women exceeded men. Yet data from the 2000 census shows there are slightly more males over the age of five than females: if some men practise polygamy, other men may not be able to marry even one woman!
Puspo’s plans suspended?
Puspo aimed to stage the Polygamy Awards annually. In July 2004, however, the head of the Awards committee informed me that the event had been postponed until September 2004, after the presidential election. But 2004 ended without a second awards night.
Many Indonesians may have forgotten Puspo’s public championing of polygamy and the media circus it inspired. Since March 2004, there has been little media coverage of polygamy, after almost a year of it being a hot issue. The media instead focused on the general election.
Postponing the Awards until after the elections suggests Puspo is politically savvy and aware of the changing political climate. Arguably, his boldness in sponsoring the Awards during Megawati’s term owed much to her government’s political leanings: Megawati’s vice president, Hamzah Haz, has three wives. Puspo has been noticeably silent during the current presidency of SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono). Perhaps this is because SBY, like Soeharto, has a military background and shares the former president’s anti-polygamy platform.
Nina Nurmila (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior lecturer in the State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN) in Bandung, Indonesia. She is a PhD student in the gender studies program at the University of Melbourne.