Sakdiyah Ma'ruf: Extinguishing extremism with laughter

Sakdiyah Ma'ruf: Extinguishing extremism with laughter
Muslim stand-up comedian Sakdiyah Ma'ruf uses humour to speak out against extremism and advocate women's rights, stirring controversy and even making fundamentalists laugh at themselves.
6 min read
12 April, 2016
For Muslim stand-up Sakdiyah Ma'ruf, comedy is all about truth-telling [YouTube]
For Muslim stand-up Sakdiyah Ma'ruf, comedy is all about truth-telling - whether it's about domestic violence, arranged marriage or fundamentalists' secret knowledge of porn. That's why Indonesia's biggest Louis CK fan is careful what she says.

"Self censorship - are you kidding me? I censor everything I say."

Indonesia's pioneering female stand-up has made her name by speaking out - against extremism and for women's rights - but despite her courage, the Muslim comedian is careful what she says.

"I tell my audience about the exact things I have experienced and the exact things I know exist," she tells The New Arab. She doesn't swear and she doesn't try to shock. "The last thing I want is for my act to be controversial."

The comedian developed her anti-controversy reflex at home. Growing up in with strict conservative parents in a Yemeni-Arab area of Pekalongan in Central Java, Ma'ruf became used to treading carefully around her father.

"I was raised witnessing domestic violence," she says. "My relationship with my dad was nice in a way but in many other ways it was intimidating - terrifying sometimes."

Despite this, Ma'ruf has never stopped reaching out to her dad. He lives with her and she takes him to hospital regularly for his diabetes treatment - but "experience of violence stays in your veins".

"Just a raised voice can cause your heart to pound... and then you back down - again and again and again."

Today, however, Ma'ruf gives one little sense of being oppressed. Since becoming a stand-up comic seven years ago, the 34-year-old has made waves in Indonesia; a fire extinguisher loaded with laughter in Indonesia's battle against the flames of fundamentalism.

Making extremists laugh at themselves

Ma'ruf's comedy aims to take the heat out of confrontation, not just to make fundamentalism funny for a general audience, but to make the fundamentalists laugh at themselves.

This comic does not want to make enemies with her jokes - something that is clear in the way she recounts her childhood experiences.

"Growing up in my house I was crying out for people to love me, not yell at me," she says.

Once a heralded example of tolerance and diversity, Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, is increasingly seen as a fertile ground for extremism.

Since the Bali bombings in 2002, Indonesia has suffered a series of attacks. Responsibility for the most recent - a bomb attack in Jakarta that killed four civilians - was claimed by the Islamic State group.
Ma'ruf's comedy aims to make the fundamentalists
laugh at themselves [YouTube]

Attacks like these are not the main target of the comic's jokes, however. And Ma'ruf, who does not pretend to be unafraid of a backlash, has yet to take on IS in her routines.

What she does send up are the ridiculous encounters she had with fundamentalists at college and the "misogynistic and arrogant male culture" she still experiences in her hometown today.

"There are many men in my community who still think they live in the desert," she says. "That they need to hit women to relieve their stress from fighting the infidels."

One of the funniest things about extremism in Indonesia, she thinks, is that fundamentalists know their pornography. When rumours circulated that Japanese porn star Miyabi was going to be cast - albeit in a non-raunchy feature film - fundamentalists immediately railed against her.

"But how could they know this Japanese woman is a porn star?" laughs the comedian. "Aren't they supposed to be reading the Quran?"

While jokes like these might seem trivial, they serve an important purpose. By poking fun at the extremists, Ma'ruf hopes to make them less self-conscious about their hard-man posturing, and to take themselves a little less seriously.

"I try my best to deliver something that is undeniably true," she explains. "So that if the fundamentalists care to see my performance, they can look at themselves and laugh."

Listening to the fundamentalists

Although Ma'ruf says she is very supportive of other activists, who flatly reject violence in the name of extremism, she believes it is crucial to talk to the extremists as well - "so we can actually learn where this ideology is coming from, their way of thinking, their mission".

After the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people, Indonesia watched as one of the collaborators in the attacks testified on live television. "But now we hear about terrorists being shot to death at the crime scene," the comic says. "I don't think it's helping much with our effort to fight terrorism."

I try my best to deliver something that is undeniably true. So that if the fundamentalists care to see my performance, they can look at themselves and laugh.
- Sakdiyah Ma'ruf

This desire to listen and to be heard comes across strongly when I ask Ma'ruf about becoming a stand-up. Ma'ruf wants to talk to people, she wants to help change Indonesian society - not in a provocative way, but with honesty about her own experience.

"It's amazing," she says. "I feel like I can finally be heard... and it's not too confrontational. Being a comedian, you just have to be honest and not afraid to be vulnerable. People will laugh at you instead of yelling at you."

'Number two after Prophet Mohammed'

Her guide and teacher in all this is the American comedian and actor Louis CK, known for his almost tragic brand of self-deprecating humour.

"Oh yes, oh my god," she squeals. "It's like Louis CK is number two after Prophet Mohammed. I listen to him... He speaks to my pain." She watches the comedian on YouTube at the beginning and end of almost every day.

"If I'm honest, I don't know if it's really a good thing to listen to him for guidance in life," she giggles. "That guy's a mess."

As well as showing similarly barefaced honesty in her comedy, Ma'ruf displays some of CK's trademark self-deprecation when she talks about refusing to marry young. "I'm so expired that even Javanese men would not give mercy," she said at a gig two years ago.

Applying for marriage with a CV

Up to now the 34-year-old has resisted the notion of tying herself to a man. Growing up, the expectation was, and still is, for girls to marry early - to a rich man within the community - but Ma'ruf managed to dodge that bullet.

Some Indonesian girls have little choice in the matter, however. Although arranged marriage is largely a rural phenomenon nowadays, with girls being married off as young as 12, it is returning among fundamentalists in the cities - even those with a university education.

Ma'ruf speaks out on issues facing her
country's women [YouTube]

"Many marriages at university are not even arranged by the parents," she says, "but by the uluma (Muslim scholars). You register with the uluma who gives your photo to someone he thinks is suitable for you based on your CV. It's like applying for a job."

Ma'ruf speaks out on other issues facing her country's women - reproductive health and domestic violence - and while she finds the necessity to speak out "heart-breaking", she is adamant that Indonesia will win its battle against fundamentalism.

But in no way does this mean Ma'ruf is rejecting her religion. What she is afraid of most, she says, is "being put in the same group as Ayaan Hirsi Ali [one of Islam's most divisive critics]... endorsing the voice of the Islamophobes.

"I'm standing here for fellow Muslims," she says defiantly. "Not to validate anyone's judgment against us.

"I don't want to do that. I don't want to put fuel on the fire."

Sakdiyah Ma'ruf is a nominee for an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award in the Arts category - for artists whose work challenges repression and injustice and celebrates free expression. The awards ceremony is being held on Wednesday evening.

Follow Fred Searle on Twitter: @fsearle91