Are Indonesian women’s rights under threat

A woman selling Tikar Lampit, an Indonesian handicraft from South Kalimantan

Recent popularization of smartphone application AyoPoligami stirs controversy over women’s rights in Indonesia. 

By Azira Mohamed

A new smartphone app aimed at matchmaking men interested in polygamy has caused a stir regarding the state of women’s rights in Indonesia. The app allows its users to scroll through each other’s profiles and interact online.The dating app has garnered over 50,000 downloads since its launch in May.

Lindu Cipta Pranayama created the app to fill the gap in dating applications catering to those interested in polygamous unions. Mr Pranayama claimed that it was rising divorce cases in Indonesia that inspired him to create the app. He said that although polygamy is permitted in Islam, “what happens in Indonesia, if the wife isn’t willing to share her husband with another woman is eventually they’ll get divorced.”

Activist Concerns

Activists regard the free app as a threat to women’s rights. It is seen to encourage polygamy which often leaves women vulnerable to domestic abuse. In Indonesia, such marriages are still considered taboo and are usually done in secret and unregistered. Polygamy was clamped down during ex-President Suharto’s reign but is slowly making a comeback among conservative forces in the country. Supporters of the practice often cite religious reasons and are becoming more vocal especially online.

According to Zakia Tunisia, an activist at Women’s Solidarity for Human Rights, “The app gives a stimulus for polygamy to be accepted in society and maybe even compelling women to accept it.” Referring to the app, she called it both “upsetting and shocking.”

Indriyani Suparno, a commissioner at the National Commission on Violence Against Women, regarded the practice as a “form of violence against women.” Women’s rights activists contend that unequal treatment of wives often lead to disharmony and that polygamous marriages are prone to domestic violence. In August this year, a second wife stabbed a first wife to death over monetary disputes in Aceh province.

Poor security measures in the app allow for instances of abuse such as fake profiles and sexist behaviour towards female users. The app’s logo clearly depicts a bearded man surrounded by four wives in full Muslim dress. Despite its religious guise, undercover netizens reported cases of sexual harassment by men who confessed to cheating on their wives using the app. Instances of sexist behaviour and fake profiles

Ayopoligami was recently revised and re-launched earlier in October requiring users to provide an identification card, marital status and a letter of permission from the first wife.

Lack of legal enforcement towards women’s welfare

Under Indonesian law, men are permitted to marry up to four wives on condition of a religious court approval and formal consent from his first wife. The court will grant permission if a man proves he is able to treat his wives fairly and support an extended family. These approvals are often only granted if his existing wife is either disabled, ill or unable to bear children. Such legal protections are meant to safeguard women’s welfare.


Strict legal measures, however, fail to translate to practice as men often resort to private marriages which bypass the courts or provide false information to obtain court approvals. Although a wife’s consent is mandatory, this practice leads to agreement given under pressure or outright denial of a woman’s refusal.

Due to unregistered marriages and misinformation, no official figures of polygamous marriages exist in the courts. Nina Nurmila, author of “Women, Islam, and Everyday Life: Renegotiating Polygamy in Indonesia” estimated the frequency of polygamous marriages to be at 5% of the population, a sizeable figure given Indonesia’s approximately 260 million population.

Fears of creeping Islamisation and gender-discriminatory policies

In recent years, women’s rights in Indonesia have been the subject of public debate with a spate of controversies from discriminatory local laws.

Since Indonesia’s de-centralization, there has been an increase in laws dictating women’s public behaviour. These regulations are enforced by local governments and supported by conservative Islamic groups. A regional by-law was released in Sumedang, West Java in 2016 prohibiting women with “eye-catching appearance” from appearing in public for fear of encouraging sexual behaviour. Female police recruits in Indonesia are also subject to long-running virginity tests meant to ensure their ‘morality.’ In the sharia-ruled region of Aceh, women are prohibited from straddling motorcycles and are required to sit side-saddle. The regions of West Sumatra, West Java, Banten, and Sulawesi are also enforcing strict dress and behavioural codes primarily on women as a means of protecting public morality.

The increased policing of women behaviour leaves many women in the regional provinces subject to discrimination in public spaces and dispossessed over their own lives.

Gender Inequality in Indonesia

The latest Human Development Index (HDI) report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2016 reflects continuing gaps between males and females in Indonesia, especially in terms of economic opportunities.

UNDP country director Christophe Bahuet attributed these inequalities to prevailing socio-cultural norms, educational levels and poor access to general and financial services. He further noted that  “the economic and political structure are still dominated by men.”

Differences in regional customs also dictate the treatment of women. Legal measures alone cannot overcome cultural barriers to women’s empowerment. A more holistic approach to empowerment is required to improve women’s rights at the local level.

To this end, Bahuet suggested deeper engagements between the government with civil society and human rights organizations at both national and local levels. Source:United Nations Development Program, The World Bank


President Joko Widodo as UN Women Ambassador

President Joko Widodo made bold commitments to end violence against women and girls when appointed UN Women ambassador in 2016. Although his cabinet holds a record number of eight women ministers, this representation has yet to translate to better welfare for women.

President Widodo pledged to develop and strengthen local institutional capacity to address violence against women. Contrary to this end, the number of discriminatory local laws targeting women have actually risen since his appointment. Widodo remained silent on these violations. His preference for silence signals a lack of commitment to his campaign on women’s rights. Progress on the women’s rights front is slow to come in Indonesia. For many Indonesian women, hope is still left wanting.