Sakdiyah Ma’ruf’s jokes cover many of the same topics as other comedians – family, relationships, sex, plus one that few dare touch: Muslim extremism.
She also stands out as Indonesia’s first female standup comic to perform wearing a hijab, a headscarf worn in some Muslim traditions plus loose fitting clothing that covers everything but her hands and face.
Like any good comedian, Ma’ruf mines her own experience for humor, and like many effective activists she understands the importance of the battle because she’s been fighting it her entire life.
Ma’ruf was awarded Freedom Forum’s Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent in 2015, has been named an Ambassador for the Moral Courage Project and spoke as well as performed at Bali’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival late last year.
“I don’t think I’m courageous,” the 30-something with an infectious smile says. “I’m just a woman who believes in finding irony in life, who believes in ‘let’s try again tomorrow to find the strength to battle extremists.’
“If I draw any bit of courage, it’s standing up in front of you today in Bali – while telling my dad I’m at a university event in Surabaya.” Ma’ruf recently completed a master’s degree at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University where she earlier received her bachelor’s degree in English.
Growing up, she watched bootleg copies of American sitcoms – Roseanne, starring “fat, brave, loud” Roseanne Barr was a particular favorite – traditional Javanese comedy by the Srimulat troupe and modern Indonesian film comedy from comedian group Warkop. She got the idea of doing standup from watching a recording of Robin Williams Live on Broadway in 2009 and launched her comedy career from there.
Timing is everything in comedy, and Ma’ruf took to the stage as standup enjoyed a growth spurt in Indonesia, largely inspired by a local version of the US reality show Last Comic Standing, where she reached the finals.
Rather than using YouTube, a very popular outlet for humor in Indonesia, she chooses standup “because it’s live, because of the magic of connection.” When she’s not performing or collecting honors, Ma’ruf works as an interpreter and translator.
When invited to Oslo to receive the Vaclav Havel Prize, “For three seconds, I was so excited,” Ma’ruf says. “For the next three weeks, I was looking for excuses to tell my dad.”
Ma’ruf was raised in Pekalongan, a predominantly ethnic Arab community – her family roots trace to Yemen – that has resided in Central Java for generations and follows a strict form of Islam.
“It’s a source of my inspiration, but it is also a source of my aspiration, meaning that most of my jokes inform or tell stories about my background,” Ma’ruf explains in an interview with Asia Times. “But through exposing the irony of those experiences, I’m hoping to draw aspirations from those experiences as well.”
She tells audiences, “People in my community work f**king hard – I have to use that word – to believe they still live in the desert, which includes yelling at their wives for sport, hitting them to relieve stress, nudging their daughters to marry their rich older neighbors. Many of my friends got married at 16 and dropped out of school.”
For young Ma’ruf in Pekalongan, the larger concept of Indonesia provided a ray of hope. Although it has the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia’s founders adopted a secular constitution and declared the national motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (Unity in Diversity), embracing millions of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists also living in the sprawling archipelago.
“I took refuge in the idea of Indonesia as an entity that offered an alternative way of living, to escape and discover freedom,” Mar’uf says. “Growing up, I imagined Indonesia means you are allowed to not wear hijab and allowed to have boyfriends.”
That was largely true of Indonesia under President Suharto’s authoritarian New Order. The government kept a tight lid on Islamic extremism – as well as political opposition.
The reformasi movement that brought about Suharto’s 1998 resignation, and with it the end of strongman rule, unshackled Islam and it became a leading outlet for newly won freedom of expression. Saudi Arabia jumped in with both feet and fistfuls of dollars to promote its extreme Wahhabi sect.
That was the Indonesia Ma’ruf discovered beyond Pekalongan. “I found that many urban Muslims in Indonesia, who grew up with far more freedom than I did, suddenly started adopting the closed-minded attitudes of people in my community. I escaped the desert only to find a whole other desert waiting for me…Something in Indonesia is definitely changing, and under this hijab, I am worried.”
Ma’ruf is fighting back the best way she knows how. “Comedy is about us celebrating our humanity. We are all human and we are all flawed. None of us have the right to think we are the rightest of the right or the truest of the true.”
Muhammad Cohen is editor at large of Inside Asian Gaming and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie