Sakdiyah Ma’ruf grew up watching American sit-coms, and decided to use comedy as a means to get people talking about religious intolerance in her country, the largest Muslim country in the world. She was to become Indonesia’s first Muslim female stand-up comic.
Of Hadrami-Arabic descent and born in Central Java, she wears a hijab while openly challenging religious extremism – in the voice of a witty and subversive young Muslim woman who questions, but never loses affection for, the culture she hails from. Sakdiyah received the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent at Oslo Freedom Forum 2015.
Catriona Mitchell: Sakdiyah, I’ve heard you say that being on stage is when you feel most alive, and when you feel free.
What exactly is it about being on stage that brings that sense of freedom?
Well I think I’m not yet very good at writing jokes, that I still need to work on my craft, but what is so liberating for me is that I can feel completely naked on stage without taking my clothes off. I can be as honest as I can, and this sense of connection can be very liberating.
My lifelong search is, well, for a husband and for God, but also for acceptance. For a sense of belonging. That few minutes where my eyes and the eyes of the audience meet, the few minutes where I can actually find people who can laugh with me… “Yes, I feel you. And I understand.” That’s irreplaceable.
People keep asking me why I’m wearing a hijab, and I say it’s for religious reasons, but then I remember that I have a Masters degree so I have to come up with a more sophisticated answer… so I say to them, “bad hair day.”
You had a conservative Muslim upbringing. Do you feel sometimes that you’re caught between worlds, given the subversive career you’ve chosen?
It’s really hard for me to find a place where I belong. Looking back, my whole life has been a struggle to escape hijab, but escaping hijab is just a symbol I guess of me trying to express myself, trying to find where I belong, discovering who I am and shaping my identity.
I started to embrace the hijab as part of my religious belief in my third year in college, where I thought, “Oh ok, this is part of my devotion to God, this is what I believe in.”
After I adopted it, there was one moment when I decided to take it off, and I went to a shopping mall to celebrate that day, but then I realized that I felt naked. I felt that no, this is wrong.
I owe it to comedy a lot that I understand myself better, I realize that what I’ve been looking for is not a way out, but a way in, in order to embrace who I am and make the best of it.
And making the best of it, in your case, is to make humour out of it.
My point is that we are modern, we are traditional at the same time. We are progressive, we are conservative at the same time. We may be Muslim and casual drinkers at the same time. The point is that multiple identities do not have to be in conflict with one another … this is why I love comedy, because it provides a space to discuss not only the multiple identities, but the many ironies and hypocrisies.
Is the stage the place where you feel whole?
It’s where I can make fun of the different worlds. To talk about it in more contemporary political terms: I am caught between Islamic extremism, that I’m trying to criticize from within, as a Muslim, but also Islamophobia on the other hand. I must be fully aware that while discussing both or ridiculing both, I have to not fuel these.
Do you need to censor yourself sometimes, in order to be delicate with both sides?
To be sensitive, and make sure that I’m really telling the truth and not go over the line… we just always have to be aware of consequences, not to us, but words that we say can be twisted, utilised by other people who are not very responsible …
Have you ever felt personally endangered for using your voice the way you do?
Personally endangered, no. I have received a lot of threats on the Internet, and also people come to me and doubt my commitment to Islam and… yeah, those types of comments.
How do you deal with that? Does it distress you?
Well one comment was: “You’re not following in the steps of the wives of Prophet Muhammad, you should stop this, sister, it’s sinful.” Well I said, “You’re not following the steps of the Prophet well, because to my recollections I don’t remember the Prophet watching women speaking on YouTube.” So backlash – while it is distressing – it is in a way inspiring as well. I don’t know, I’m not trying to challenge anyone. I think backlash at least means that they listen. At least they listen. They watch the videos.
The latest invitation that I got, I had to speak in a yacht. What an incentive to become a Muslim role model! Oh my God! But travelling means facing my identity as a Muslim. I’m always more Muslim than I am Indonesian. People ask me, “Why do you speak such good English?” “Well I need to speak in a language that my parents cannot access.”
Do you feel you have influence over other women?
I’ve been told. I’m glad that there are now many hijabis winning standup comedy competitions. The more there are, the better. Two of them at least that I know of are way more successful than I am. They receive film deals and a lot of publicity in Indonesia, which is great.
But you broke the ground.
Some of them said they saw my video and it helped them to come up on stage as well. Yes, I certainly hope so.
Catriona Mitchell spoke with Sakdiyah at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Bali.
Photos by Suki Zoe.