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“Comedy found me and now it saves me”: meet Sakdiyah Ma’ruf

Being a ‘first’ who paves the way forward for others isn’t a job usually taken lightly. But award-winning Indonesian comedian Sakdiyah Ma’ruf has made a life of being a ‘first’ in her pursuits – among her many achievements, she’s Indonesia’s first female Muslim comedian.

Following her performance in Sydney late last year as the keynote speaker at The Chaser Lecture, Ma’ruf spoke to The Point Magazine about her unique journey into the world of stand-up comedy. 

From her time growing up in an Arab minority community in a small town on the north coast of Java, Ma’ruf has been the odd one out.

She found it hard to fit into her madrassa (Islamic school), and because of her background she struggled to belong in her public high school.

Finding herself wedged between worlds was made all the more pronounced with her obsession and love for US television and comedy.

“I remember I was still at elementary school when I watched Full House and Roseanne almost religiously,” Ma’ruf told The Point Magazine.

“My community is very proud of who they are in an almost xenophobic way. Early marriage is the norm instead of the exception. It is all about family name, tradition, and there are also other issues that underlie my current thinking and messages in comedy,”

Choice, Ma’ruf said, is a privilege in her community.

“We live a life that has been decided for us. Lucky for me, my Mom is a highly educated activist…She is my inspiration, my strength, and the reason why I was still in school until I earnt my Masters Degree instead of getting married like many of my friends.”

Ma’ruf’s path to comedy came in embracing life’s many ironies and finding the voice to speak out.

And there’s not much Ma’ruf won’t speak out about – from the rise of extremism in Indonesia, fashionistas and vegans, and domestic violence and government corruption to name a few regulars in her acts.

“I think comedy found me because I have enough bitterness inside my blood that is very well mixed with hope, optimism, and sense of humour that has been the DNA of [my] Arab community.

– Sakdiyah Ma'ruf

“I think comedy found me because I have enough bitterness inside my blood that is very well mixed with hope, optimism, and sense of humour that has been the DNA of [my] Arab community.

“Most importantly, I think it caught me desperate to speak and not knowing how.

“Comedy found me and now it saves me. It allows me to know myself more and most importantly to heal.”

Ma’ruf is optimistic about the role of comedy in Indonesia, with the popularity of stand-up growing and the meteoric rise of social media and political satire memes.

“In the context of Indonesia, I am very proud and optimistic to see the way people are enjoying humour nowadays. Political satire exists above and beyond theatre doors where it used to be and it’s always been for a long time.

“I can see that we are ready to talk about ourselves and our nation, and to talk about it in the spirit of dialogue instead of anger and confrontation. Comedy does facilitate such mature and sane encounters.”

Even feminism is deeply entwined with comedy, Ma’ruf said.

“Feminism means to say the least, keep laughing and speaking up even when it is against the world for women to laugh and speak up.”

Not one to shy from poking fun at anyone, Ma’ruf asserts a pride and love for the country she also laughs at. She reminds Westerners that Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy, and no, Bali is not a neighbouring country. 

The past 20 years have been a period of remarkable transition in Indonesia. Known to Indonesians as the Reformasi, Indonesia has moved towards greater democracy.

With democracy comes a proliferation of ideas, which are now freely tested in Indonesia’s courtrooms.

“Many groups demand themselves to be heard even more than the others. Democracy nowadays turned into endless lawsuits of one person or one group against another,” Ma’ruf told The Point Magazine.

On the current blasphemy case against Jakarta’s Christian Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, Ma’ruf warns against judging the state of freedom of expression in Indonesia based on an “election-driven situation” and the game of politics.

But she is concerned about the existence of blasphemy laws, which she considers dangerous and a “betrayal” of the spirit of the Reformasi.

“If this law continues to exist, people can find arbitrary cases that perhaps insult them personally and turn it into an insult against religion for instance. This is dangerous as it will make people afraid to speak up.”

But this isn’t stopping Ma’ruf from speaking up.

Even when she tackles extremism with jokes about Playboy, breasts and bamboo weapons, Ma’ruf isn’t afraid for her safety and doesn’t fear a backlash from her audience.

“I guess at the end of the day, it is the very insecurity inside all of us that makes laughter very easy to enter,” Ma’ruf said.

“What I fear the most is whether my parents and family will be happy with what I am doing…whether they will find it subversive against the family for me to talk about extremism, let alone to laugh about extremism.

“But it will not stop me from working,” Ma’ruf vows. 

The Point

Award-winning Indonesian comedian Sakdiyah Ma’ruf has made a life of being a ‘first’ in her pursuits – among her many achievements, she’s Indonesia’s first female Muslim comedian.

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