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‘Comedy is provocation in a funny and subtle manner’

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Indonesian stand-up comedian Sakdiyah Ma’ruf challenges women’s issues and religious extremism with her razor-sharp wit. She spoke to Najwa Abdullah.

Hijabi standup comedian Sakdiyah Ma’ruf: “Humour is in my DNA”_Aquila Style

“How do you feel about being Muslim in Indonesia?” asked stand-up comedian Sakdiyah Ma’ruf at the beginning of our conversation. “It’s [something so] normal that you almost can’t see what is wrong, what goes wrong, or if there is anything wrong in the society.”

When people hear that Indonesia has the biggest Muslim population in the world, and that it can stand side by side with democracy, they might think Islam is being practised properly. On the surface level, why wouldn’t it be so? The constitution allows religious freedom and as the majority, Muslims have an abundance of religious benefits and facilities. But Sakdiyah believes that “something is amiss, and the danger is that most of us don’t even realise that.”

The 32-year-old resident of Jogjakarta is a rare find in Indonesian-Muslim society –  especially in her ethnic group of Arab-Indonesians. She is one of the very few female stand-up comedians in the country to appear on national TV and to concern herself with women’s issues, corruption and the proliferating extremism among Muslims towards minorities.

Her criticism of certain Islamic practices and groups is prone to controversy, but she believes that she is on the right track. “I’m conscious, responsible and have arguments as well as stories for every single thing that I say. Simply put, there’s a cautious intention to address certain issues in every joke. I will not talk about something I don’t have knowledge of or talk with prejudice and assumptions.”

She believes that social norms can turn us against ourselves. “At the end of the day, we become strangers in our skin. We don’t recognise ourselves, for instance, we lose our senses and humanity in our religiousness. Or in our women’s world, we don’t really know why we are wearing these high heels and fake eyelashes.”

Sakdiyah, who has a way with words, chose stand-up comedy because she wanted to use humour to take the audience where they might otherwise be afraid to tread. She believes that using the power of comedy to chide social and religious norms can be both amusing and enlightening.

“That’s the beauty of comedy. It’s provocation in a funny and subtle manner. It is deconstructing popular beliefs by making fun of ourselves or implying that society has set up an impossible standard of living,” she said.

When I asked her when she decided that comedy would be her life path, she attributed it to her family. “Growing up in the heart of Arab-Indonesian community in the city of Pekalongan in Central Java, I always knew that across my family and community, humour is in our DNA. We are generally very funny,” she said.

Her passion for comedy grew slowly as she was exposed at an early age to popular American sitcoms such as The Cosby Show and Full House. Among many others, her favourite comedian is Louis C K and how he turns his misfortunes into satire.

Having plunged into the Indonesian comedy world, she noted that it takes more than just humour to become a comedian. “If you’re arrogant, you can’t do comedy. It takes a serious dose of self-reflection and infinite humility to be completely aware that one is flawed, and the courage to look into oneself,” she explained.

Sakdiyah strives to maintain her idealism and intention for her chosen profession. “One of my intellectual influences once said, ‘Unlike divine lights, studio lights are blinding’. I couldn’t agree more with this, since I’ve experienced a great change in how I perceive myself.”

Meanwhile, she is working hard on a new piece on the current presidential election in Indonesia – without showing any political leanings. With her long-developed concerns for her country, Sakdiyah just wants Indonesia to be a better home for religious hybridity and multiculturalism.

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