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-- Indonesia is pushing for a new law that will require men to register multiple marriages instead of engaging in polygamy on the quiet.

The aim is to strengthen protection for women and children.

Recently, the religious affairs ministry submitted a Bill that would punish men who opt for unregistered marriages - known as nikah siri - with a jail sentence and a fine.

Such marriages, it said, deprive children of the second and subsequent wives of their inheritance, as their names do not appear on civil records.

Mayor Gavin Newsom stands between newlyweds Cissie Bonini... Kim Komenich / SFCNikah siri marriages are typically officiated by Muslim 'clerics' who are not authorised by the religious ministry.

The marriages are considered valid under Islamic law if witnesses are present, but many are often carried out secretly and in the absence of witnesses.

Nasaruddin Umar, director-general for Islamic guidance at the ministry, stressed that the Bill does not ban polygamy, but allows men to marry up to four women as long as they meet the legal requirements, including getting their wives' written consent. Bill reportedly has the support of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's wife Ani, who has been active in fighting for women's and children's rights.

It is expected to be tabled in Parliament later this year.

About 85 per cent of Indonesia's 234 million-strong population is Muslim.

Most of them practise a moderate form of Islam, and many believe that polygamy is neither mandatory nor encouraged, but merely permitted by Islam.

Polygamous marriages drew the nation's attention in late 2006, when popular Muslim cleric Abdullah Gymnastiar admitted, after much media speculation, that he had taken a second wife - a young, widowed former model.

It sparked a public outcry and prompted Dr Yudhoyono to order the religious affairs ministry to draw up stricter regulations on multiple marriages.

Mrs Yudhoyono also received, in the meantime, hundreds of SMS messages and letters of protests against multiple marriages.

There are no reliable figures on polygamy, as many cases go unreported in Indonesia, but it appears to be on the rise, going by the rising number of divorce cases attributed to differences over polygamy.

Most men do not register polygamous marriages, nor do they get the consent of their first wives.

But if the bill is passed, any man planning to marry a second time would have to have his first wife declare before a court that she approves of the planned marriage.

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) has hailed the proposal to criminalise unregistered marriages. The country's second-largest Islamic organisation, Muhamadiyah, has also approved the move.

Muhamadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin, however, was quick to stress that nikah siri should not be considered a crime.

'This would go against the principle of religious freedom as guaranteed by the Constitution,' Mr Din told The Straits Times.

Islam, he added, allows nikah siri as long as the conditions are fulfilled, such as having the ceremony officiated in the presence of family members, and ensuring a dowry is handed to the bride.

MUI chairman Ma'ruf Amin, however, argued that nikah siri would be sinful if the marriage were to put any party at a disadvantage later, or was based on bad intentions.


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