The angry hijabi who finds solace in comedy
Hans David Tampubolon
The Jakarta Post
In the otherwise lame and boring stand-up comedy scene in Indonesia, Sakdiyah Ma'ruf has started what could be considered a revolution.
She is like a drop of water in the desert as the local standup comedy scene has succumbed to television censorship policy on sensitive issues for the sake of air time and nationwide fame.
It is easy to see why Sakdiyah is so distinctive.
She is probably one of the few females in Indonesia who dares to take the stage in a world dominated by male comics.
Sakdiyah has been raising eyebrows with her stage appearances ' a woman of Arabic descent who wears hijab yet likes to blatantly address highly controversial issues that are usually avoided by 'popular' comics for the sake of keeping their faces on your television screens.
With her distinctive look and growing popularity, she could have easily become a major mainstream comedic star on TV.
However, because she was constantly asked to censor or tone down her material, she opted to perform live instead, delivering her uncensored messages to preserve her art.
Sakdiyah said that for her, being a comic is not about fame or money but rather about giving her audience an unforgettable experience and making them think about societal issues and those affecting them personally, even after the curtain goes down.
'I believe that good comedy makes you laugh, great comedy makes you cry. Why? Because great comedy deeply affects. It leaves you completely naked,' Sakdiyah told The Jakarta Post in an interview.
Her trademark material is taken from her real-life experiences.
Born into a family of Hadrami-Arabic descent in Pekalongan, Central Java, the 32-year-old said her family was very conservative yet also a bit liberal.
'I was pretty much exposed to all Western pop culture, from Full House, Roseanne to MTV. But every now and then, my mom would say, 'Diyah, that's a bunch of cows you are watching kissing in public like that!' Although I was exposed to 'the West', I was pretty much not allowed to do anything but go to school.'
As a female in a patriarchal ethnic minority group, Sakdiyah also faced pressure to marry one of her distant cousins, like her mother did, for the sake of what her community considered 'maintaining ethnic purity'.
'For Hadrami-Arab men, it is OK to marry outside their community, but as women, we have this burden of upholding our identity, whatever that means. We don't even speak Arabic for heaven's sake,' said the woman, who learned English on her own by watching TV shows.
'Hence, we are prevented from interaction with the 'outside' world as to prevent us from, among other things, knowing men outside of our community.'
Sakdiyah said that the experience of living in a highly conservative and patriarchal community had driven her to grow up with a lot of pent up anger.
'I grew up resenting marriage and told my mom that I didn't want to ever get married. I said this all while still in high school,' she says.
Overtime, Sakdiyah realized that comedy might be the best channel for her to vent her anger and to deliver her perceptions on social issues within her own society.
'Comedy found me very early, not standup but comedy in general. In between my conversations with foreign imaginary boyfriends, I memorized words from Srimulat, Kethoprak humor and other traditional comedy shows and fashioned my own sketches,' she said.
'I did not realize that it would become the path that I would pursue. When I was in junior high school, I took part in a lomba lawak (comedy contest) in my school and ended up winning second place out of three participants. That marked the end of my comedy career at that time.'
But she became drawn to stand-up comedy while watching the late Robin Williams' special Live in Broadway. She was so captivated by Williams that she decided to use stand-up comedy as the subject of her English literature Bachelor's degree thesis at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta back in 2009.
'I am the only girl from my Islamic elementary school that has been given the chance to earn a Master's degree,' said Sakdiyah, who is currently finishing her Master's program at UGM.
It is on campus where Sakdiyah began performing her comedic routines, raising controversial issues, from religion, fundamentalism to misogyny.
She said that her comedic style was influenced by numerous American stand-up comedians such as Williams, Bill Cosby and Louis CK.
Watching Sakdiyah perform, you can really see the influence of those great American comics.
She has the cheerfulness of Williams, the bitterness of Louis and although she discusses highly controversial adult issues and themes, just like Cosby, she never uses swear words or profanity in delivering her messages.
Sakdiyah said that her family was not initially aware of her standup comedy activities.
'My mom knew about my first performance on Kompas TV but my father didn't. Only when I got a gig at Taman Ismail Marzuki did I tell my father about what I have been doing and invited my family to Jakarta,' she says.
'My mom has always been very supportive and positive. My dad is supportive but most of the time is still very reluctant to acknowledge my work.'
Sakdiyah's edgy material and style has slowly but surely gained her recognition. She has been featured in numerous international publications, such as The Daily Beast, for her willingness to talk about highly sensitive issues in a conservative Muslim society like Indonesia.
She is also a regular columnist at The Huffington Post and has written several articles on feminism and other socio-cultural issues.
Despite her growing popularity and following, stand-up comedy has yet to become a full-time career for her.
Sakdiyah still works as a professional interpreter and translator, a profession she has been working in for almost six years.
However, she dreams of one day having her own special like Williams and to earn a living solely from her arts.
'My aspiration is to talk blatantly about domestic violence and sexual abuse like date rape [...] both issues are extremely close to my heart.'
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