At TEDx Ubud, Sakdiyah Ma’ruf asks her audience to identify themselves by a show of hands.
“How many of you are radical Muslims?”
A pause as Ma’ruf scans the room.
“Ok, that’s smart, don’t identify yourselves. This is Bali. We have history.”
“White supremacists? A pause. “No one?”
Ma’ruf lowers her tone and asks, suspiciously: “Raw-food vegans?” Laughter. “They’re the scariest, right?”
It’s a joke that goes right to the heart of the identity politics Ma’ruf skewers with her stand-up comedy. Her material covers life as Indonesia’s first Muslim female stand-up comedian, the expectations of women in Indonesian society, Arab identity and Islamic fundamentalism.
“What I say on stage is all part of my own frustration about what’s happening in my community, and what’s happening in Indonesia in general,” Ma’ruf says on Skype from her hometown of Pekalongan, which is five hours from Jakarta, where she is usually based.
In 2015, at the Oslo Freedom Forum, Ma’ruf won the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. Previous winners include Ai Weiwei, Aung San Suu Kyi and Pussy Riot.
But she has a healthy sense of cynicism. During her TEDx Ubud talk she says: “Being referred to as brave because you are the first Muslim female stand-up comedian only validates the stereotype of Muslim women as repressed.”
Ma’ruf tells the audience the Daily Beast and the World Courage Project called her a “young muslim comic against fundamentalism”. Her response? “Thanks for calling me young!” At 34, Ma’ruf explains, she should have been married 15 years earlier “to … one of my distant cousins. Now I’m way past the expiration date for men in my community. So I’m stuck with continuing my education and having a career.”
Her community is Arab-decent Muslim and, like many minority cultures, it believes its survival depends on preserving family names and cultural connections through marriage.
“Usually in my community girls marry immediately after high school, sometimes they drop out of high school. Many of us now are graduating from universities and also we have many achievements outside of our schools,” Ma'ruf says. “But basically our lives have been decided for us.” She says anyone who pursues a different path, such as comedy, is “very good at lying to our dads and sneaking around”. The best outcome is “silent resistance until we are finally able to negotiate our terms with our mum as lawyer.
“It’s emotionally exhausting. It’s mentally exhausting. I built my life out of sneaking. They were traumatic days,” she says.
When she talks in her act about the funny (but mostly stressful) ways she has deceived her father and her community in order to keep doing comedy, her supporters on Twitter congratulate her. “They say, ‘Great punchline’. And I’m like, ‘it’s not a punchline! I’m just telling the truth to you. I’m lying to my dad. But I’m telling you the truth’.”
Ma’ruf started her guerilla tactics for living the life she wanted in earnest when she went to college (she studied English and American Studies), away from her family and community. She joined a political student organisation and began performing her comedy on private TV station KompasTV. But her interest in comedy started when she was a child. Growing up in a conservative family, she wasn’t allowed to go out other than to school, so she watched US sitcoms (“the best part of being born and raised under an authoritarian government: you only have one television channel”). It was a revelation. “In the afternoon I was drowning myself in Full House and Roseanne. Can you imagine a seven-year-old watching Roseanne? I remember clearly her attitude, her laughter and also her husband and how she treats him with a great sense of humour and the way they talk to each other.
“If you are a woman and you are doing comedy in film [in Indonesia] you are starring as a punchline. Male lead comedians are ridiculing their beauty, their body, objectifying their appearance; because they’re either pretty or ugly – ugly and fat, usually. So a true female comedic voice that plays an active role in building an act and building a joke is rare,” she says.
Ma’ruf still sneaks around (although less so) because there is still a chance her activities will be banned. It’s the reason her TEDx Ubud talk was called “The Bravest Coward”. “Sorry to disappoint, but for those of you who are looking for a motivational, inspirational speech by a courageous Muslim woman, you can check out Malala’s talk.”
Funds raised from the Sesquicentennial Inaugural Chaser Lecture & Dinner will go to the global freedom of expression charity, ARTICLE 19. The event is on November 17 at Sydney Town Hall.