Hilarity and the hijab

3 Feb 2017 By Clare Fletcher, Walkley Foundation

Sakdiyah Ma’ruf, Indonesia’s first female Muslim stand-up comedian, spoke with The Walkley Magazine’s Clare Fletcher while visiting Sydney in November to deliver the 2016 Chaser Lecture.

When I meet Sakdiyah Ma’ruf it’s two days after the US election and everyone still feels a little shell-shocked. An espresso machine squeals as we sit opposite each other in the ABC cafeteria, one interview of many she’ll do that day. She’s radiant in her hijab, ready with a self-deprecating joke and a grin of slightly crooked teeth: pretty relaxed for a provocateur.

“I know for a fact that life is sometimes scary,” she joked to a TedX audience in Ubud, Bali. “Especially when you’re asking for permission from your dad to kiss your boyfriend. I did kiss my boyfriend. Many times. Via text message.”

She jokes about dating, family life and Muslim men, but just by using her voice Ma’ruf is both normalising a Muslim woman’s experience and taking a stand against fundamentalism and hypocrisy.

Stand-up is a bold career choice in a country that’s experienced a surge in fundamentalism. Ma’ruf says television programs have asked her to censor her jokes, and she has refused. But at the same time she jokes that she self-censors everything. She says she isn’t out to shock and doesn’t swear much (though she does allow herself more liberties in English, which her parents don’t understand). Being silenced would defeat her purpose.

“Where I come from, people work f***ing hard to pretend that they still live in the desert,” goes another gag. “Which includes yelling at their wives for sport. Hitting them to release stress. Nudging their young daughters to marry rich older neighbours.”

The world is taking notice. Ma’ruf won the 2015 Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum, and was shortlisted for the 2016 Freedom of Expression Award.

Oslo is a long way from Java, and Ma’ruf even jokes that she’s become an expert in lying to her father about where she is and what she’s doing. Her family have been supportive though, always prioritising her passion for education even if she faced restrictions in extra-curricular opportunities.

“There are many restrictions in my family about getting out of the house after school, but during school I participated in competitions. Not sports! Poetry reading, storytelling, speeches. Everyone cool in class was doing sports, basketball, volleyball, badminton, singing, playing guitar, and I thought, I don’t know how to do that. I grew up wanting to be Lisa Loeb.”

But instead, after discovering US comedians like Robin Williams and having a lightbulb moment, she tried comedy, entering a junior high school competition.

“I came in proudly at second place out of three contestants.”

Ma’ruf says it’s difficult to get gigs as a woman in Indonesia, but the comedy scene is vibrant and growing. Since starting out in 2011, now she’s seeing friends in the scene making movies while others embrace social media to find an audience.

“Indonesia is really a country of opportunity. Many young people are now creating opportunities by themselves, posting online content and becoming YouTube celebrities, or Instagram celebrities.”

Being the first female Muslim standup comedian in Indonesia makes Ma’ruf proud and sad at the same time. She doesn’t necessarily consider herself a trailblazer, but does acknowledge that there are now more female comedians, particularly in movies and theatre. Recently she watched a 18-year-old Muslim comic wearing a hijab win a TV talent competition.

“That was amazing,” Ma’ruf said. “I don’t know if she knows about me or not. I’m not here to become a role model. But to see the growing number of female comedians, I’m very proud and optimistic, and also very happy that the scene now is getting more open to Muslim comedians.”

As she talks about the news sources she turns to — BBC Indonesia for local issues, local publications like Kompas, CNN and The Guardian for world news as well as her Twitter feed — Ma’ruf says she’s surprised and impressed by the ABC in Australia.

“I’m actually surprised how critical government media can be to the government. Maybe Australia is the example of democracy that works. I’ve just learned that in Australia you’re obliged to vote? And I’ve heard criticisms of that model, but look at what’s happening in the US. Forty-six per cent of US citizens didn’t vote. This is really not the time to not vote!”

So is the idea of a Trump presidency a worry or a boon to a comedian?

“It’s a wake-up call. Extremism is not a joke.”

Ma’ruf says it’s time to go to work.

“I began to realise that the comedians have to do a lot more. We not only have a job now in comedy as part of our work, as part of our profession, but we have a responsibility, more than ever, especially with political satire. We are accustomed to mock the establishment and we need to punch the powerful and the complacent.

“With Trump I began to realise that even the fiercest, harshest joke is free PR for the guy. There is a need to really evaluate satire. And to really be very careful in its power. Both to deliver criticism and raise public awareness and at the same time to promote power and establishment. Because we are living in the age of media where good news and bad news doesn’t matter. For as long as you’re in the spotlight, that’s PR.”

Clare Fletcher is commissioning editor of The Walkley Magazine.

Article re-published with permission of The Walkley Foundation.