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The Truth Behind the Rise of Polygamist and Virgin Auction Sites in Indonesia

The rise of sites offering men "halal" loopholes to premarital sex are eroding women's rights in the world's largest Muslim-majority country.

by Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja
28 September 2017, 10:58am

Image via Reuters

Indonesia is a country with two faces. There's the face we present to the rest of the world, the one of a modern, liberal place that makes foreign leaders like Hillary Clinton remark, "If you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity, and women's rights can coexist, go to Indonesia."

Then there's the face we show at home. That's where things get a lot more complicated. Is Indonesia modern and democratic? Sure. Does it care about women's rights and equality? To an extent. Does that mean it's as rosy a picture as our leaders present abroad? No way.

Remember, we may have had a female president long before a lot of the West (props to Megawati Soekarnoputri for breaking that glass ceiling early), but we also are still struggling with stuff like virginity tests, religious intolerance, and female circumcision.

None of this should be news to any of us. We've covered a lot of this stuff in the past, writing stories about the country's obsession with a woman's virginity, police raids on feminist events and discussion groups, and claims that, even today, women aren't fit for leadership roles.

But now there's a new threat to women's rights: the rise of so-called Islamic dating apps and websites that push polygamy and virginity above all else. The temporarily defunct site AyoPoligami was set up to help Muslim men find a second, or third, wife through something that, at first glance, looked a lot like a dating site.

Then there's Nikah Sirri, a site that was basically an auction site for virgins. Both sites prompted a lot of controversy and hand-wringing in Indonesia, but they also exposed something most people aren't too comfortable discussing: ideals and beliefs that run counter to women's rights are becoming increasingly common in Indonesia.

And, according to one expert, when there's a rise in conservative religious beliefs, there's always someone ready to try to make some money off it. Mariana Amiruddin, a commissioner at the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), explained that these kinds of sites exist because there is a ready market eager for an Islamic alternative to secular dating companies like Tinder, BeeTalk, and Whisper.

"The market is keen on anything religious, but it tends to lack the wider perspective from a justice point of view," Mariana told VICE. "In this digital era, people are creative about making money. Something wouldn't exist if there wasn't a market for it."

So what exactly are these tech companies and how do they work?

AYO POLIGAMI

AyoPoligami has been around for a while. This app is for men searching for women interested in becoming their second wife. Not a second wife like they're divorced, it's a second wife like they're a polygamist. This app gained a lot of new members—peaking at around 50,000—before an article on the site Magdalene set off public backlash. In no time screenshots of men sending perverted messages were making the rounds on social media, prompting the app's creators to pull it briefly off them market, but not before we were able to make an account.

All a potential user needed to do was fill out their race, age, and marital status. Then the propositions started to roll in. Before she could even add a photo or complete her profile, our writer started to receive messages from men. Most of them told our writer that their wives had no idea they were on the app, but that they planned to broach the subject of a second wife once found the right woman.

Some of the men were more aggressive, with one propositioning our writer and asking outright if she wanted to meet up and have sex. Regardless of their approach, and plenty of them were totally polite, all of the men said they were on the app to avoid the temptation of zina—an Islamic term that can mean adultery, sex outside of marriage, and even watching pornography or allowing yourself to look at a woman with sex on your mind.

The app incorporated a lot of Islamic terms, but it was really just a hook-up app, albeit a weird hook-up app for polygamist men.

It's important to take a moment here and explain Indonesia's laws on polygamy. It's illegal for civil servants—anyone working for the government—to marry more than one woman at a time. For everyone else, polygamy is perfect legal, as long as you a) have the permission of your existing wife and b) have less than four wives.

But polygamy is, in no way, accepted as a normal practice in Indonesia. Women's groups have been waging a largely stalled battle to get the practice banned for years. Female clerics have even said that polygamy itself is not part of Islamic teachings. Instead, the clerics argued, verses about additional wives were meant to curtail a widely accepted practice at the time, not condone its use for future generations.

Lailatul Fitriyah, a PhD theology candidate at the University of Nortre Dame, went further, likening polygamy to a form of slavery in an opinion piece for Magdalene.

"The practice of polygamy stands on the assumption of men's sexual ownership of women and it can be analogous to slavery," Lailatul wrote. "It should no longer have a place in the socio-political order of today, one that stands for the principles of human dignity."

NIKAH SIRRI

The first words you see when you open the "halal" virgin auction site Nikah Sirri are "You are one step away from entering a world that is beautiful and full of worship, a world full of romance and the divine's blessing."

The site goes to great lengths to disguise what it really is. It claims to be a website for to find the perfect man, woman, or penghulu—an Islamic wedding officiant. In reality, it's a virgin auction site where men sent millions of rupiah to "virginal women" to win the right to "marry" a virgin. The winning bid could specify whether they wanted the marriage to take place in a hotel room or an apartment. If this doesn't sound like a marriage to you, that's because it isn't one.

These weddings were religious unions only, meaning that the state wasn't sanctioning any of this. The name Nikah Sirri itself means "secret marriage," so no one was even trying to pretend that any of this is legal. Add in the fact that places like the resort town Puncak routinely offer visiting Arab tourists contractual "weekend wives" and you start to see where this is heading.

"There was practically no difference between contract marriages and nikah sirri; despite 'contracts' wives have virtually no protection, with the contract merely lasting for the duration of the marriage," the Jakarta Post explained in an editorial calling for the site to be shut down.

"The state has marriage laws that were taken from a compilation of Islamic laws, so in cases where domestic violence occurs, the law will protect the woman," Mariana said. "So women need to realize that entering a nikah sirri will leave you vulnerable and unprotected by the state."

The site's owner tried to hide all of this under the guise that he was preserving religious and cultural norms that value virginal women over all else. The site was "a preservation of Indonesia's Eastern values and indigenous culture."

The owner, a man named Aris Wahyudi, went on to explain that poor families could use the site to make some "halal" money off their daughters by basically selling their virginity to the highest bidder.

"The idea came about because we wanted to create something to reduce poverty while still retaining people's independence by using an asset that poor families already had," Aris told local media.

If any of this makes you feel gross be thankful that you're not alone. Indonesian authorities quickly shut the site down, using the country's vague pornography laws to say that it was functioning like an online brothel.

The investigation uncovered that Aris and his crew were charging 10 to 20 percent for every transaction sent through the site in the form of coins. He was arrested at his house for "creating and owning the website, which contains elements of pornography and the exploitation of children and women." Police seized t-shirts reading "Virgins Wanted" from his house.

Both AyoPoligami and Nikah Sirri exist because men are looking for a way to avoid premarital sex, but still actually have sex, explained Mariana, the commissioner with Komnas Perempuan. But what they are really selling is an illusion at the expense of women's rights, she said.

"During Jahiliyah—a period of ignorance before Islam arrived in the Arab world—virgin auctions were used to sell the illusion of sexuality, as if virgin women worth 'more' or would bring 'more pleasure,' she said. "Really it's just about sex and money—nothing else."