JAKARTA: Plans to open branches of a Malaysian "Polygamy Club" in Indonesia have upset women's groups and religious leaders in the world's most populous Muslim nation, who say the search for multiple wives should be handled privately — not by a matchmaking service.
Under Islamic law, Muslim men are permitted four wives. The club claims a noble aim of helping single mothers, reformed prostitutes and women who feel they are past marrying age meet spouses. It also offers counseling to people facing problems in polygamous households.
The Malaysian owners say they want to "change people's perception about polygamy, so that they will see it as a beautiful rather than abhorrent practice," club chairwoman Hatijah Binti Am said as members from around 30 families attended a gathering in Bandung, west Java, for the opening of the first Indonesian branch last week.
Others will soon be added, including in the capital, Jakarta, said spokeswoman Rohaya Mohamad.
"Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country, so polygamy can be a way of life there too," Rohaya said.
Polygamous relationships are believed to be gaining in popularity in secular Indonesia, but it's impossible to say how many there are because the marriages are performed secretly at mosques and are not recorded by the state.
Indonesia's 1974 Marriage Law permits a man to have a second wife if his first is an invalid, infertile or terminally ill. However, there is no way to monitor adherence to the rules.
Polygamists point out that the Prophet Muhammad is thought to have married about a dozen women in his lifetime, including widows in need of protection. But a prominent member of the influential Indonesian Ullema Council, a board of Muslim priests, described the launching of a formal club as a "provocative campaign."
"Such a club is needless," said Ma'ruf Amin. "It will draw (negative) reactions rather than solve problems" because the practice is generally opposed by women in the country of 235 million people.
Several prominent political and religious figures in Indonesia openly married second wives in recent years, sparking widespread public debate and calls to ban civil servants from polygamy. Analysts believe the number of men with multiple wives is increasing as this emerging democracy searches to balance modern governance and Islamic identity.
Amin said that although Islam allows polygamy, popularizing the practice could encourage multiple marriages in which the husbands fail to adhere to strict guidelines, including fair treatment of all wives and children and equal financial support.
Opposition has also come from women's rights activists.
Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, director of the Institute for Indonesian Women's Association for Justice does not oppose men having several spouses, but said the club should not advertise openly.
"If they did it privately, that would be fine," she said, citing the acceptance of polygamy under Islam and by the Indonesian state according to specific requirements.
However, Yohanna, a member of the same women's rights group, said the club effectively promotes abuse.
"While we are campaigning against domestic violence, which includes polygamy, there is a group campaigning that polygamy — which hurts other women — is a positive thing," Yohanna told MetroTV.
Polygamy is also legal for Muslims in Malaysia but not widespread. The club was founded there in August and claims to have around 1,000 members — 700 of them women — many of them former members of a banned Islamic sect of Al-Arqam.
Malaysia's Home Affairs Ministry was reportedly keeping a close eye on the club.
Hatijah, the club founder, is a wife of Ashaari Muhammad, the leader of the Al-Arqam sect that was outlawed in 1994 by the Malaysian government after the group's teachings and beliefs were found to deviate from Islam. The group then claimed to have around 10,000 followers.
Ashaari was portrayed by the movement as messiah who had the authority to forgive the sins of Muslims. He has 38 children from four wives, eight of them with Hatijah. Twenty-three of the children are in polygamous marriages.
Indonesia's more than 200 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith, but a small hardline fringe has successfully pushed for Islamic law of Shariah in more than a hundred municipalities across the nation, and the predominantly Muslim province of Aceh.