From a conservative Muslim community where expectations stretched only to marriage and children, Sakdiyah Ma’ruf has carved a name for herself in comedy, with powerful routines that challenge Islamic fundamentalism and advocate for women’s rights. Index on Censorship spoke to her about jumping over fences, Robin Williams and the censorship she has faced as the first female stand-up comedian in Indonesia.
Ma’ruf places a high expectation on her work and the role of comedy and comedians to call out social injustice. “Comedians, more than other people, should know the danger of comedy, and its potential for harassing people. But they should also fully understand its power to speak for the weak and fight against the powerful and the complacent,” she told Index.
“Comedy allows us to participate in celebration of laughter and celebration of humanity,” she says. “We laugh with you and invite you to participate in resistance, in examining injustices, in looking at ourselves and our society.”
But carving a career as a female comedian in a Muslim country has not always been easy. “Women in general, in many different cultures and traditions across the world, are born with a set of expectations attached to them,” she says. “In Indonesian popular culture, we do not have Muslim comedian wearing hijab taking the centre stage of entertainment industry…most female comedians are placed as the punch line of the act both for their attractiveness and unattractiveness, instead of being given a place to stand up.”
But the difficulties she faced becoming a comedian have in a way contributed to her success, she says. Born to a conservative Muslim family, a strict curfew meant she spent most of her childhood absorbing American TV, taking influences from musicians Lisa Loeb, Sarah Mc Lachlan, Jewel and Sheryl Crow. “They taught me to stand taller,” she says. “I guess this is one of the best things about being prevented to go out of the house after school.”
“I learned that there are hopes and that people out there are living different path of life and most importantly that women can resist!”
At college Ma’ruf became politically active. Rallying against New Order government during the earliest year of democracy in Indonesia in 1999, and participating in voicing a more moderate and tolerant Islam through student organisations – her efforts to keep her activities a secret from her family and father became more difficult.
This political activism informed her comedy, she says, but just not in the way you would expect. Keeping her involvement secret often involved jumping over the fences into her boarding house (because she almost always violated her curfew), and doing impersonations to convince her father she was actually at home with her friends – real life skits that found their way into her routine.
She entered a comedy competition when she was young, but had never seen comedy as having a place in her life, she says. “Contrary to my male colleagues in the industry, I do not ambitiously plan my career in comedy. In fact, dream and passion are a luxury to me.”
“I grew up in a quite conservative Yemeni-Arab descent community in small town on the northern coast of Java, Indonesia where there are basically two stories about the women, the bad story where you drop out of school and marry a rich man from the community or the occasional good one where you finish school and marry a rich man from the community.”
“And then the great Robin Williams entered my life.”
“Watching Robin Williams Live on Broadway stand up special in 2009, I felt like my whole life was flashing before my eyes; the US sitcoms, the comedy competition, the hardship, the impersonation, the struggle at the front row of democracy during college, I knew that I have been in love with this art from way back before I even learned the name of the art. Everything started to make more sense to me.”
In 2011 she became one of the finalists of Stand up Comedy Indonesia, run by Indonesian station Kompas TV, and later collaborated with The Moral Courage Project, telling the stories of people who are fighting corruption in their faith, culture or workplace.
But aside from facing stigmatism as a Muslim female comedian, Ma’ruf has faced censorship on the grounds of her jokes’ content.
“I was working with the Moral Courage team from New York University on a video profile. The editor asked me to send video clips from my performance. I immediately contacted Kompas TV for a clip on my joke about a radical group, taped when I opened for my friend’s stand-up comedy special, to be included in the video.”
“One of the staff there sent the video but not long after, the executive producer emailed me and strictly prohibited me to use it, because it is too sensitive for them and because they did not want to be associated with such a joke. They didn’t air it on TV.”
She cancelled the inclusion of all her televised performances in the Moral Courage video, sharing her off-air performances instead. This also marked her move towards live performances, seeing them as allowing her to share her voice with the audience.
Now an established comedian in Indonesia, Ma’ruf last year won the Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent and performed at the Asia’s Women Empowerment Forum – at the same time as earning a Masters degree with thesis on Comedy Jihad.
“My trip to Oslo to receive the Havel Prize last year was not an easy one,” she admits. “It took me more than three months just to craft the right sentences to ask permission from my dad.”
But the trip was worth it, she says. “As I stood there on stage receiving the honour, I was fully aware that I was not here speaking for myself, but for other Muslim women experiencing the same or even more difficult struggles than me, for my years of jumping over the fence of my boarding house, for everyone who is having difficulty of speaking the truth to power including the power of their ego.”
For now she plans to continue to use her voice to speak for those women, and for all others who can’t. “The world is growing increasingly divided, and the voice of women in comedy will provide the bridge between the divide, by presenting different perspectives sourced from genuine experiences of women.”