Online polygamy: commodifying the fear of sex?

The online application AyoPoligami seeks to make it as easy as possible for men (and women) to enter polygamous marriages.

 

The launch of the online application AyoPoligami.com (“Let’s Do Polygamy”), has made waves across Indonesia. Dubbed “Tinder for polygamists”, the app has already been downloaded 50,000 times. But Indonesian feminists have savaged it, saying that it uses a literal interpretation of religious texts to justify men’s uncontrollable sexual desires.

 

In the past, polygamy campaigners such as Solo-born Puspo Wardoyo promoted their cause by presenting themselves as exemplary examples of polygamous men. This application, however, is primarily concerned with making the process of entering a polygamous marriage as easy as possible. By simply ticking a box confirming that they have obtained permission from their first wife, men can get started.

 

But AyoPolygami is not the only such app. Another, Nikahsirri.com (“Informal” or “Unregistered Marriage”), also exploited literal interpretations of religious texts on sex and marriage as part of its business strategy.

 

Nikahsirri offered a platform for people to enter into unregistered marriages, or nikah siri, promoting its services as “transforming adultery into good-deeds” [mengubah zinah jadi ibadah]. Thousands reportedly registered on the website in its first few days, suggesting widespread enthusiasm for these unregistered marriages.

 

The popularity of the website might have also been prompted by its plan to hold a “virgin auction”. The website described women’s virginity as an “asset” that could be leveraged to improve the welfare of poor families. Police acted quickly, and five days after the website’s launch, founder Aris Wahyudi was arrested for allegedly violating the 2008 Pornography Law and the 2016 Electronic Information and Transactions Law.

 

Feminists rightly state that both apps perpetuate gender bias and disadvantage wives and children. But despite the controversy they have created, there has been little discussion of the fact that unregistered marriage constitutes a criminal offence. Article 279 of the Criminal Code (KUHP), describes a penalty of five to seven years in prison for unregistered polygamous marriages. Further, under Article 90 of the 2006 Law on Civil Administration, failure to register a registerable marriage carries a fine of Rp 1 million. The quotidian practices of polygamy and unregistered marriages, and the invention of these polygamy applications, show the discrepancy between law and practice.

 

Beyond the legal concerns, these apps should also be understood in an environment of increasing cultural and religious concerns about sex, particularly extra-marital and premarital sex, and attempts to associate it with shame, guilt, and sin. The popularity of polygamous and unregistered marriages also partly reflects the competing religious and secular definitions of marriage in the 1974 Marriage Law. This ambiguity creates space for the justification and commodification of informal marriages, especially when religious and cultural discourse associates sex outside wedlock with immorality and sin.

 

According to Article 2 of the Marriage Law, for a marriage to be recognised by the state, it must first be performed according the laws of each person’s religion and beliefs, and then must be registered according to prevailing laws and regulations. This stipulation consequently allows two interpretations of marriage: one is the “religiously valid” marriage [sah secara agama], the other is the “legal” civil marriage recognised by the state. Nikah siri can therefore conform with Islamic religious requirements even if not recognised by the state.

 

Under the 1974 Marriage Law and Compilation of Islamic Law (KHI), polygamy is only allowed under certain conditions: if the wife is unable to perform her duties as a wife, if she suffers from physical defects or incurable diseases, or is incapable of reproduction. Men are also limited to a maximum of four wives. Even so, for a man to take on another wife, he must also obtain permission from his first wife (or wives), demonstrate his commitment and capacity to fulfil the basic needs of his wives and children, and submit evidence of meeting all these conditions to a religious court. Permission must be given by the court for a polygamous marriage not to constitute a criminal offence.

 

Despite these requirements, however, scholars such as Nina Nurmila and Linda Rae Bennett have found that many Indonesian men continue to practice polygamy without the consent of their first wives and without meeting the stipulated conditions. As a result of the strict requirements for legal polygamy, “the practice of secret and technically illegal polygamy is more common than legalised polygamy”. Nurmila has also written about how the high numbers of unregistered marriages makes obtaining accurate data on polygamous marriages difficult. Unregistered religious marriages offer a convenient and strategic way to have (what are often secret) polygamous arrangements, or at least, to channel sexual desires without fear of committing a sin.

 

So despite the strong protections against polygamy in Indonesian law, these legal protections mean little if there is no significant transformation in the ways Indonesians view sexuality.

 

Following the collapse of the New Order in 1998, religious fundamentalist groups have acquired more political power. And consequently, sexuality has become increasingly scrutinised, politicised and regulated, producing a narrow version of sexual morality. This preoccupation with monitoring and regulating sexual morality through religious norms shows how Indonesians are actually obsessed with sex. Through dominant cultural and religious discourse, the connections between fear, guilt, and shame of sex are reproduced.

 

But people are not without agency. There are always multiple means to circumvent narrow views of morality. Or as the popular Indonesian adage goes, to “look for an opportunity in a tight spot” [mencari kesempatan dalam kesempitan]. Many people seek religiously valid ways to channel their otherwise suppressed sexual desires, which are deemed sinful if expressed out of wedlock. While unregistered marriages might not be recognised by the state, they provide a convenient means to channel sexual desires without violating strict religious norms. In a similar vein, polygamy, through its connection with nikah siri, can also be used to justify sex.

 

The competing religious and legal definitions of marriage, combined with a shame and fear of sex (or obsession with sex), in an increasingly religious Indonesia has provided new and fertile opportunities for business. As mobile phones and dating applications become more common, these digital terrains are also changing the discourse and practice of sex and marriage.

 

Perhaps this all points to “the shari’atisation of Tinder” – a new and improvisational way to circumnavigate norms while also profiting from them.