JAKARTA – Comedian Sakdiyah Maruf uses humor to talk about Islamic radicalism and women’s rights in Indonesia, a country that punishes blasphemy with up to five years of prison.
“Terrorists are more similar to Kim Kardashian than to any Muslim, they post videos online and are hungry for attention,” said the standup comedian during one of her sets.
Jokes like these have earned the laughter and empathy of thousands of followers, but have also left Sakdiyah juggling her position as a humorist, Muslim and woman of Arab descent.
Sakdiyah was born in a conservative family in Pekalongan in the center of Java island, the most populous in Indonesia, the country with the highest Muslim population in the world.
Some 88 percent of the country’s 260 million people practice Islam, most of them moderately. The influence of extremist groups, however, has increased gradually since the democratic transition following the fall of Suharto’s regime in 1998.
In an interview with EFE in Jakarta, the comedian said the enemies that worry her the most are not the people behind the growing intolerance in the archipelago, but some of her family members.
“Unfortunately, one of my biggest opponents at this time is the person who was once closest to me, my sister, who recently joined one of those Hijra groups,” she said.
“My sister told me ‘for the love of God please don’t use fundamentalism or extremism (in your monologue) and please throw away all those feminism books’,” said Sakdiyah, while her husband takes care of her seven-month-old daughter in the adjacent room.
In 2015, the Indonesian received the Vaclav Havel International prize for creative dissent, but she rejects the adjective “brave” as she feels that, “being referred to as brave only validates a stereotype that Muslim women are oppressed, so oppressed that you have to give an award to Muslim women who do standup comedy.”
Social pressure and laws protecting religion make Sakdiyah one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. The anti-blasphemy and electronic information and transactions laws carry five and six years of prison, respectively.
The humorist says fear is a part of her profession. She is afraid when she receives messages with ill wishes towards her daughter, but also when she wonders how God will see her profession, she added. “Most importantly I am scared that I am going against God, but we cannot ask God.”
Back in the Suharto era, both Islamic groups and comedians were directly repressed by the government, whereas now the state acts as an invisible hand pushing for self-censorship.
“I am not going to ridicule verses of the Koran, I am not going to ridicule the message of the prophet,” Sakdiyah said.
After the birth of her daughter, Sakdiyah said she decided to focus her monologues more on women, in part as a reaction to the pressure of self-censorship, but also because she realized that she had always been speaking on behalf of women.
Although her husband calls her ‘a comedian with a mission,” she shrugs off the rebellious part of her image and says that her intention is “to be able to have a nice loving open conversation with family members.”
“I have always been someone who struggled to find ways to express myself, and all this time I thought it was looking for a way out. Now, at age 36, I realize that what I have always dreamt of was really a way in,” she said.