It was Sunday, June 29, 2014, the first day of Ramadhan and our family, at least those of us still living in Jakarta, were gathering to break the fast at our youngest daughter’s home in Depok.
By chance, the fasting month this year began on the birthday of my husband’s youngest daughter (my step-daughter). In addition, her daughter, our granddaughter, had just recently had a birthday that the extended family had yet to celebrate. As well, her oldest children, twin boys, would soon turn 11, prompting her to include their ritual circumcisions among the things we would all be celebrating that day.
My husband and I were especially eager because this gathering would be the first time we had seen the twins since they had been reunited with their mother, their baby half-sister and their stepfather, after being kidnapped and held with their younger brother for over three months.
That horrendous ordeal had begun when our daughter, who had custody of the three children from her first marriage, informed her divorced husband that she was considering moving to another city for business reasons, and would like to take their sons with her as was admissible under the law. She offered to make arrangements so he could continue to see his sons as much as possible, at the very least on holidays. Her former husband, whom she divorced around six years ago, resides in the greater Jakarta area with his third wife and child (he is divorced from his second wife, with whom he has one child).
Within days, the boys’ father went to their school and took them without the knowledge or permission of their mother. From that point on, she had been allowed no contact with her sons, and was told they would not be returned to her. My daughter was heart-broken, as were her father and I. We were also angry and determined to take every action under the law to see that her custody rights were upheld.
She then reported this abduction to the Child Protection Commission (KPAI) and the police. Eventually, after she brought kidnapping charges against her former husband, a legal settlement was arranged in which the children would be returned to her and the father would continue to provide support for their three children, while the mother would continue to allow the children to visit their father in his home every weekend. Although painfully slow and horrendously stressful, the legal process seemed to be working.
My daughter and her sons were overjoyed to be back together again. Their entire family (grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles) breathed a sigh of relief, and was looking forward to celebrating so many blessed occasions all at once.
By the time her father and I had arrived in Depok, this collective joy and the expectations of a lovely evening of breaking the fast together and passing out presents to the baby and her mother, as well as the congratulating of the twins on their passage into manhood, had been shattered by a telephone call.
The bodyguard/assistant of my daughter’s divorced husband (a very wealthy entrepreneur) had informed her over the telephone that the two boys (the youngest of the twins and his little brother) who had agreed to stay over with their father that weekend (until the party) would not be returning home – EVER.
The oldest twin, who had expressed concern that his father might kidnap him and his brothers again, had refused to go with his father when he came to pick them up on the Friday before. The agreement between their parents had been that all three brothers would be returned home to their mother in time for the festivities.
It has been over four months and the twins remain separated. The oldest brother has been circumcised in the Islamic tradition, while the younger twin remains uncircumcised as his father adheres to another religion. Despite my daughter’s repeated pleas to reunite her sons under her care as required by law, their father refuses to return the two boys who are with him, and has begun legal procedures to attempt to take custody of all three of the boys from her.
My daughter has filed a petition to have the boys returned under the original court-ordered custody stipulations, but, as previously, when the boys were kidnapped the first time, he has refused to allow her to have any contact with them. He has even refused to let the twins talk to each other. The two boys with him are no longer allowed to interact with their oldest brother or their mother.
Also, as previously, the court and the police have moved very slowly, while the Child Protection Commission echoes their reasons: The children are with their father, not a stranger; the father also has rights; and ordering the police to extract the children from the father’s home would cause undue trauma to the boys.
A legal battle is now underway, and promises to extend into the coming year or years, as neither side is willing to compromise, while the law enforcement and child protection bodies have pretty much washed their hands of it all.
At this time, their grandfather and I, as is true of the boys’ aunts and uncles, are also denied access to the two younger boys. I have no idea how the two kidnapped boys are coping with this separation from their mother and older brother. I do know that the oldest twin, who remains with his mother, is devastated. He has taken the two bolsters that his brothers slept with when they were still together and written their names on them. At night, he hugs the bolsters and often cries himself to sleep.
The most painful thing about all of this for me as a grandparent is having to stand by helplessly and watch the excruciating pain my daughter and grandsons are suffering as this tragedy unfolds. The twin’s birthday (September) has passed and they remain separated.
The fact that the twins, who began life together in one womb and have always been inseparable, have been torn apart by circumstances they do not understand and can no longer even celebrate their birthday together, is like a knife being twisted in my heart.
This would not be happening if the custody laws were enforced properly. It seems that the law has no strength in the face of the all-encompassing patriarchal mindset of the culture that impedes its implementation and turns a blind eye to the rights of mothers and their children.
Yes, indeed, as the police and the Child Protection Commission have argued so insistently, the fathers do have rights. They have the right to see their children, to be part of their lives, to play and interact with them, and to know what is happening with them as they grow and develop. Those rights have never been denied to the father of my daughter’s children.
In my mind, the real issue, however, is whether the mothers and the children have any choice in situations where the fathers take the children away from the mother and deny them access to each other. Under the law, the mothers have the same rights as the fathers, and the children have the right to be with their mothers too. Yet, in practice, this is rarely enforced. The father’s patriarchal prerogative (as the male who sired the child or children) to claim the fruit of his mate’s womb, continues to trump not only the law, but good sense and humane treatment of children overall.
The result of all this is that children suffer cruelly when family structures crumble, when close relationships are sundered, and when they are denied the love of either of their parents and the members of either of the extended families involved.
And – as I have begun to understand all too well – their grandmothers suffer right along with them.
Margaret Agusta trains cub reporters at an English language daily newspaper in Jakarta, occasionally writes articles on gender rights, and is currently attempting – in spurts, and when time allows – to complete a longer piece of writing on the impact of violence against women.