A year ago, 35-year-old developer Lindu Pranayama came across a great business opportunity: he realized that among the many mobile applications, there were no options for polygamists (those who have more than one wife or husband at the same time), and there is a market for it.
Nowadays polygamy is practiced in 50 countries, including Indonesia, the country with the most Muslims in the world, where 80 percent of the 250 million population adheres to Islam.
Lindu’s aspiration was to unite all those men and women looking to create “great families.” So last April he launched Ayo Poligami (loosely translated as “let’s do polygamy”), an app with many similarities to Tinder, in which users slide the images left or right to indicate rejection or attraction.
Lindu’s app has already more than 56,000 downloads and has sparked controversy over polygamy once again in Indonesia, especially in October when Ayo Poligami was relaunched with some improvements and appeared in the media.
Indonesian law defines marriage as between a man and a woman, but a man may marry up to four women under certain circumstances. For example, religious courts grant permission for multiple wives if a man is married to a woman who is disabled, suffers from an incurable disease, or can not have children. Men who want to marry another wife must have permission from their first wife, and those who work for the civil service must also get permission from their supervisors.
As Rachel Rinaldo, a cultural sociologist in the University of Colorado Boulder, explains “most marriages among Indonesian Muslims are monogamous” and these kinds of restrictions do tend to discourage the practice. However, she says that some men get around these restrictions by marrying privately with just an ulama (Muslim cleric) sanctioning the union. Such a marriage is not considered legal by the state, so “this can cause many problems down the road.”
Rinaldo says there is a verse in the Quran that allows men to marry up to four wives, provided they can provide full support for all of them. But Muslims do not necessarily agree about the interpretation of this verse.
“While some believe that it does permit men to have multiple wives,” she says, “others argue that it is actually meant to discourage polygamy, since supporting and being just to four wives is actually quite difficult.”
According to her, still others say that this verse was really only meant to apply to the Prophet Muhammad himself. These differing interpretations are the reason why we see a lot of variation in Muslim communities when it comes to polygamy.
Some predominantly Muslim countries, such as Tunisia, have banned polygamy. Others have placed serious restrictions on it. Globally, polygamy is most common in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is practiced by both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Polygyny (having multiple wives) originally arose in some parts of the world as a way to create large enough families to work the land. Rinaldo explains it made sense at a time, because people did not live as long and, without much technology, needed a lot of hands to produce enough food. However, as a feminist, she thinks polygyny these days is “discriminatory and unequal,” because it means that men “have rights over multiple women.”
Statistics on polygamy are hard to find. From what Rinaldo has read, the highest rates of polygyny in Indonesia are in eastern Indonesia, among people who are Christians or practice traditional animist religions. In the predominantly Muslim islands of Java and Sumatra, the practice was traditionally limited to the aristocracy (and they married far more than four wives, so their polygyny was not exactly in accordance with the Quran).
During the Suharto regime (1967-1998), polygamy in Indonesia was banned and punished with severe penalties, so those who practiced polygamy were at least very discreet. The president had only one wife, Madame Tien, and public officials at the time could not practice polygamy, because they could even be fired.
According to Rinaldo, however, there has certainly been a lot of publicity about polygamy in Indonesia in recent years, and there are some political and religious figures who have an agenda to promote it.
For example, in 2003, high profile Javanese restaurateur Puspo Wardoyo married four women and instituted an event called the Polygamy Awards at a Jakarta hotel. The event aimed to promote the transparency of polygamy and recognize the men who had opted for this family model. The new websites and apps contribute to the mix.
Nur Rofiah, a lecturer at the Institute of Quranic Studies, also asserts that “there [is] no punishment and procedure for men who break the law, so they can do so safely and openly.”
In 2014, the district of the East Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara province, opened the door for “extended families” by passing a law allowing polygamy after a payment of a million rupees (about $75) to the local treasury department. Supposedly, the purpose of the fine was to “avoid corruption and bribery” of public officials, who occasionally pocketed money from families with more than one wife.
According to Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, polygamy is presented as “something positive,” leaving aside “the other side” such as “abusive marriages, economic difficulties, and traumatized children.”
Harsono was a victim of polygamy himself — his father married three women and had a total of 10 children. He was also abusive, involved in domestic violence.
Harsono explains that two of his sisters, now 48 years old, have paranoid schizophrenia. In hindsight, he believes their mental illness was probably related to the trauma they experienced as children.
“One of them was broken-hearted when seeing her beloved father had left our house,” says Harsono. “Their mental illness was later triggered in their own failures, but the childhood traumas do contribute, according to psychiatrists who have examined them for decades.”
Lindu, the app designer, has a more sanguine view of polygamy. Lindu met his wife through this app, which inspired him to go ahead with its development and redesign. His goal was to design an application for polygamists looking for “serious relationships,” but as the dating site’s popularity increased, so did the number of fake accounts and users who used it for casual sex.
By 2015, a community for polygamists in the network had already started, which began with a WhatsApp group. The community, known as Forum Keluarga Sakinah (translated as “polygamous sakinah family”), acts as a place of social exchange for polygamists. One goal of the group is to initiate a review of the marriage law, because its regulations complicate the practice of polygamy.
The homepage of the new version of Ayo Poligami shows an illustration of a man with a beard in the middle of four women wearing hijabs. One of the women is holding a baby in her arms; two other children, a boy and girl, stand in front of the adults.
Among the new options allow users to filter for valid ID cards, marital status, and a letter of permission from the first wife. Members can verify profiles or physical features, but are not required to provide their pictures.
As Lindu explained, the users can chat, but their messages “must contain a proposal for doing taaruf (a term meaning knowing, understanding, and building relationships).” If both users agree to do taaruf, they are invited to a Telegram group for the potential wife, the husband, and Lindu, who acts as a matchmaker, helping the woman to ask the man questions related to dowry, work, and salary.
Currently Ayo Poligami is only available in the Bahasa language, but Lindu shared his aspirations to offer the application and website in several languages. The application already has downloads in other neighboring countries like Malaysia or Singapore.
Despite the media attention, Rinaldo doubts that polygamy it is actually on the rise. She says that “it’s just not economically feasible for most people, and many women will not agree to it.”
In her opinion, people tend to see it “as being a relic from an earlier time” and not something that makes sense in the modern world. In recent years, she says, politicians who have been “outed” as polygamous by women’s rights activists have found their political campaigns sinking, so that is a pretty good indication of what Indonesians think about the practice.
Ana Salvá is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.