How Marriage is Different in Indonesia

tim chan —  August 12, 2013 — 7 Comments

We’ve spent the last week in Bali, Indonesia. It’s one of the most beautiful vacation destinations in Asia, and also where my brother recently got married. One of the things we’ve enjoyed during our stay here was having conversations with the local Balinese people. What we’ve discovered is that the marriage rules in Indonesia are quite different from what we are familiar with in North America.

How Marriage is Different in IndonesiaWe were told that in Indonesia, the government will only give you a marriage certificate if you marry someone from the same religion. Debbie, the manager of our villa, said she switched from being a Catholic to being a Hindu to marry her husband. It took her 3 years to learn all the rituals and get used to her new religion.

Also, in Indonesia, you can only get a legal birth certificate for your child if you are married. If you are unmarried and have a child, you have very limited options. One of the mornings while we were here, Olive and I got massages. Olive’s masseuse, Suti, told her about her son who’s the same age as our daughter. Suti adopted her son from the local hospital. He was born prematurely to an unwed teenage mother. Weighing a mere 2.2 lbs at birth, he spent two months in an incubator before going home with Suti and her husband. Still, he was only around 4 lbs.

Suti and her husband paid for the baby’s hospital stay, as well as the mother’s delivery since the young mom couldn’t afford it. It currently costs the couple $100USD/month to raise the child (who has additional expenses because of his being a premature baby.) But since Suti’s husband only makes $150USD/month as a gardener, she had to go back to work as a masseuse to make ends meet. Had Suti and her husband not adopted this child, he would not have had an official birth certificate.

Suti also told Olive that most women in Bali will convert to their husband’s religion, not the other way around. But the three main religions of Catholicism, Hinduism and Islam co-exist in relative harmony and people switch around without giving it much thought.

My first response to hearing these “marriage rules” were that they were backward. But after giving it more thought, I realize that I have “first-world” syndrome, where I incorrectly believe that everything in North America is better and superior to so called “developing” countries, including these marriage rules. Without understanding the culture and history here in Indonesia, I have no way of knowing that the North American way of doing marriage is a “better” way or not.

Do you know of different “marriage rules” from other countries or cultures? 

  • Lana

    Found your blog from Shelovesmagazine. I related to it so much because I did missions work in SE Asia for two years. I was driving teens around town and checking into parenting meetings at 24 years old. Talk about burnout. I’ve also struggled with relating to people now that I’m back (but I’m going back…), etc. Well, maybe I’ll meet you sometimes as I’m in graduate school in BC now.

  • Conrad

    It is interesting how they do “marriage” in Indonesia, but I don’t believe you have any syndrome…or I’ll just speak for myself. It sounds like you listened enough to comprehend how they marry, but if critiquing their way of giving up one’s faith and religion, something very personal for which I as a follower of Christ would NEVER do just to marry and/or because I was in love with someone, means that I have “first world” syndrome, then call me whatever you like. It sounds more like political correctness rather than valuing what is possibly true and right.

    …i spent time in Malaysia, working at a Christian church…I respected the culture and people, the Chinese in the church, as well as the Malay and Indian peoples of the country at large which is mostly Muslim…there are things the West and America does better, generally speaking, and things we here can learn from them as well…but requiring people to marry within one religion is not one of them…

    • Hi Conrad,
      Thanks for your insights into this, especially from your experience in working in Malaysia.

      What I like about the law to marry someone in your religion is that if you are dating/engaged to someone with a different religion, it forces you to make a choice. You either decide your faith is more important to you and you will not give it up, or you decide that the person is more important than your faith and you are willing to change faiths.

      In the West, you do not have to make this difficult choice, so I think many Christians feel like they can both love God and love a spouse from a different faith at the same time.

      This concept is still new to me, so I’m still forming my thoughts on this, and appreciate this discussion. Would love to hear more from you on this subject.

      • Lesley H

        Tim, you have made a very startling point… That we in the west “do not make a choice between our faith and our spouse” This is part of our mistaken understanding of what scripture teaches namely that we are not to be unevenly yoked- ie wed to someone who is not pulling the same way as us. I lived in SE Asia all of my childhood and I saw many Christians persecuted for their faith sometimes cut off by their families because of it. Many suffered hardships for their faith but none chose a spouse over alliegence to Jesus Christ. If we do this so remarkably easily in the west what does that say about the value of our faith? Disposable convictions that are so easy to set aside when the teachings of scripture don’t agree with what we want. We are reaping the harvest of this in our land.

      • Conrad

        Hi, Tim…I appreciate your sense of wanting those in Indonesia to make a firm decision…I agree with that sentiment, though in the context of government policy, I do not agree with a nation “only” marrying a couple of like religion…it comes off as fascist-lite, to me, in all honesty.

        In as much as we reap many benefits in the West with our “freedoms”, of course it comes at a cost of people becoming watered down in their faith, i.e. choosing romance over devotion to one’s religion. For me and you, though, to follow Christ is THE standard. ( hence, my comment on no one being guilty of any syndrome, except for “Allegiance-to-Christ Syndrome”? ;-) )

        I would much rather have a policy of intra- and inter-religious marriages being legal. I even see leeway in the Bible within Paul’s teachings for inter-religious marriage. I know the context was the early formation of the Church, but he clearly showed flexibility in his approach to marriage….and yes, going the “same direction” is the wisest decision. ( and ya know, two “Christians” can be unequally yoked…BUT that’s another discussion ;-) )

    • Liz

      Hi Conrad,
      So glad to hear you were working at a church in Malaysia, I am quite familiar with the Malaysian culture and would love to hear more about the things we do better here and the things we can learn from them…


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