Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Polygamy Talk and the Politics of Feminism: Contestations over Masculinity in a New Muslim Indonesia

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Polygamy Talk and the Politics of Feminism: Contestations over Masculinity in a New Muslim Indonesia

Article excerpt


The political downfall of the Suharto administration in 1998 marked the end of the "New Order", which was characterized by a 32-year period of authoritarian rule. Opening the way for democracy, it included the unlocking of Indonesian politics for the influence and participation of political Islam, which the New Order discouraged or banned. This shift led to a proliferation of Islamic issues in the public and political sphere. Many of them concerned issues of gender and have triggered profound debates about women's rights and gender equality. This article examines one of these public concerns over "Islam and gender", namely polygamy. It assesses how the issue of polygamy is debated in post-authoritarian Indonesia and scrutinizes the ways in which women's groups, organizations, and different forms of feminism have played an active role in these debates. As my analysis will demonstrate, the contestations between the different women's groups show a far more multifaceted picture of "polygamy talk" which cannot solely be reduced to issues of Islam and gender. Rather, the case study showed that their perspectives intersected with identity politics informed by postcoloniality, modernity, religion, nationality, and globalization. It is through these specters that this article aims to understand the complexity of a transiting Indonesia greatly affected by processes of Islamization and democratization.

Keywords: Gender, Indonesia, Discourse Analysis


In March 2003, the popular Indonesian daily Media Indonesia announced the following headline: "Polygamy Juice Ordered by the Megawati Family" (Media Indonesia, 16 March 2003). The newspaper reported about the famous restaurant franchise called "Solonese Man" (Wong Solo) owned by the entrepreneur Puspo Wardoyo. The restaurant, known for its roasted chicken marinated in Javanese spices, launched its new fruit shake called polygamy juice made out of avocado, mango, soursop, and papaya, and apparently a favorite order for President Megawati's delegation at the restaurant. When asked why Puspo Wardoyo--a polygamous man himself and married to four women--named his new drink product polygamy juice, he replied that he wanted to make the practice of polygamy more visible and more acceptable. His ambition was to make people proud, rather than blush, when they would introduce their second or third wife.

Since then, Puspo Wardoyo involved himself in many activities surrounding the topic of polygamy. He published several books and frequently talked on national television about the virtues of practicing multiple marriages simultaneously. Especially during the Ramadan fasting month he and his wives were a much featured topic on radio and television. Most noted, however, was the Polygamy Award which was set up by Wardoyo to award men who were regarded to have successful polygamous marriages. Although a relatively small event, the contest attracted nationwide attention. Amply covered by mass media, it caused a public outcry in different factions of Indonesian society. A public debate on polygamy came into effect with arguments in favor or against the practice.

This article examines the pro-polygamy campaign, but instead of describing the occurrence of polygamy as such, my concern is to examine what's "at stake" in defending, justifying, or defying polygamy as promoted by the campaign. Through which frameworks were arguments defined and formulated? And in what ways do gender, sexuality, and religiosity feed into these discussions? My analysis suggests that the resurgence of polygamy served as a lightening rod for debate among Islamists and feminists. Rather than reflecting a more doctrinal return to Islam, it exemplified contestations over ideas of manhood and masculinity. While new forms of masculinities are reconfigured, Islamization and democratization processes alter the hegemonic status of nominal Muslim masculinity. I explore how these new manifestations relate to responses from feminist and Islamist women's groups and assess their implications for a feminist politics in Indonesia. …

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