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The battle over marriage in Indonesia

The Indonesian government has been trying to enforce marriage and divorce laws for some time. These efforts are encountering resistance from both local communities and the Indonesian Supreme Court. PhD candidate Al Farabi investigated where this resistance comes from.

Al Farabi researched the Mukomuko regency, on the west coast of Sumatra. He himself is part of this predominantly Muslim community. 'Mukomuko and other similar areas in Indonesia are very close-knit,' says Farabi. 'So the fact that I did research in my own community was pragmatic: I already have a bond with the people there. They trust me and are more likely to talk to me. On the other hand, Mukomuko exemplifies the intersection at which communities like this are located.' 

Traditions and Islam

'The Indonesian government is trying to promote or even impose its own version of Islam through its marriage legislation,' Farabi continues about that intersection. 'But many communities, for example Mukomuko, have their own customs and traditions in this area. While these do have a basis in Islam, they are substantially different from the version promoted by the government.' 

Indeed, the traditions in Mukomuko follow a matriarchal lineage, Farabi explained. 'The position of women is very important to them. For example, the decision to marry or divorce must be approved by both the man and the woman.' The marriage legislation advocated by the government is of a patriarchal, strictly Islamic nature. Only the man would be allowed to make marriage decisions. 'This is being sold by the government as a positive development for communities like Mukomuko, but those women would actually be worse off as a result.' 

Different interpretations

These different interpretations of Islam are causing many struggles, and not only between local communities and the authorities. The Supreme Court also holds different views from the government. 'The Supreme Court likes to stick to the old norms and traditions, and therefore supports women's rights in the country,' Farabi explained. 'It has so far blocked the government's legislative proposals, as have local judges.' 

In this way, the judiciary is counteracting the homogenisation of Indonesia: another a reason for the government to enforce these laws, according to Farabi: 'Laws like this, which try to centrally regulate something like marriage, are a danger to Indonesia's great diversity. My aim with my work is to promote respect for this diversity. I want to ensure that the position of women in the country will not only be safeguarded, but will also be improved.' 

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