A shy, timid and thin young girl came in with the doorman to our doorstep. With a vocabulary of not more than 50 words of Bahasa Indonesia, we communicated to her about hours of work and pay. We were new to Jakarta and had just moved into our new place. We literally hired the first person who walked in (and within minutes of meeting her) as our maid. In a few weeks time and with a lot of help from Google Translate, Fitri (name changed!) told me her story. She was 35 years old and had three beautiful daughters aged 16, 9 and 5. Her husband had left her for another woman who was pregnant with his child. In Indonesia, both the law and religion permit Muslim men to marry up to four women, no questions asked.
Many, many years ago, when tribes were busy attacking and plundering, leaving hundreds of women helpless and children orphaned, this law made perfect sense. When men married these desperate women, it wasn't just taking someone under their wing, but giving them their name and protection. It is one of the many centuries-old customs that make no sense in the present-day scenario.
Fitri's first husband left her to marry another woman he got pregnant? Yes... Fitri's new boyfriend also left his first wife and children for Fitri and their new child? Yes.
But it is exploited nonetheless.
Fitri had not worked a day in her life until she showed up at our place. She had moved back into her father's house but still needed the money. Things were good. Until a year later when she started throwing up. Nausea, upset stomach and fatigue. A week or so of this and my husband jokingly asked her "Are you pregnant?".
That I was pretty shocked would be an understatement. She had three girls already, hadn't she figured out how the reproductive system works? Had she never heard of protection? Or the after-pill? Nothing made sense. But we're talking about the uneducated section of the world. People who actually don't know these things or take them seriously. She carried the baby of course, as abortion laws are very strict in the country.
Her boyfriend was married already. But this wasn't an issue at all. He would simply dump his first wife for Fitri, and these two would marry and raise the new baby.
Wait, let me get this straight.
Fitri's first husband left her to marry another woman he got pregnant? Yes. Like literally abandoned her for the sake of his new bride and baby. Without even bothering to file for divorce since it would incur high costs.
I didn't see husbands really taking any big chunk of responsibility of their previous wives or children. The women do it all. Work many jobs or find new husbands...
Fitri's new boyfriend also left his first wife and children for the sake of Fitri and their new child? Yes. And I'm guessing she had to get a fake ID for her second marriage since it was cheaper and less complicated than a divorce from the first husband!
Umm... yes, pretty much it.
Soap opera much?
This was just one such story. It was normal to see women marrying one man after another and men marrying one woman after another. People I met in Indonesia had at least one ex-wife or ex-husband and a child or two from the previous marriage. Often the 'second' or 'third' marriage happened owing to an accidental pregnancy that could not be aborted owing to rigid laws.
I didn't see husbands really taking any big chunk of responsibility of their previous wives or children. The women do it all. Work many jobs or find new husbands in order to sustain themselves. They seemed to have figured out how to do it.
Yet, life went on.
But what about the heartbreak? Of your husband just leaving you one day and marrying someone else since he got her pregnant?
What about the responsibility of raising children that you didn't want in the first place?
What about those little children? Are they healthy? Social? Neglected?
In the US state of Indiana, the laws are worse... abortion is banned even in cases where the foetus has developmental abnormalities...
What about the complications from botched illegal abortions in the case of women who want to beat the system?
How is every one okay with this?
Some food for thought before you go:
- In India, abortion is legal and polygamy is an exception made only for Muslims marrying under the Muslim Act.
- Chile is one of the most rigid Latin American countries in terms of abortion laws. Abortion used to be legal in case of risk to the mother or unviable foetus, but was completely banned by ex-dictator General Augusto Pinochet in 1989. This ban has finally been lifted just recently. After 27 years.
- In the US state of Indiana, the laws are worse. Not only is abortion banned even in cases where the foetus has developmental abnormalities, new ways have been implemented to shame women who even miscarry.
And what happened to Fitri? Well, we left the country in 2013, only a month or two after she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. We funded the hospital bill of course. But the last we know is that her new husband moved in with her into her father's place, as he couldn't afford a place of their own.