Turning Points: Comic Sakdiyah Ma’ruf On Battling Gender Inequality With Humour

By Samantha Topp

The Indonesian comedian on her mission to challenge discrimination with humour, and the four life-defining turning points that helped her get to where she is today

Tatler Asia

“I’m not using comedy to gain fame,” says Sakdiyah Ma’ruf.

The Indonesian comic has no aspirations to be a household name, but she wants her message to be talked about in homes around the world.

“To me, comedy isn’t just about entertainment,” she says. “I use comedy as a medium for dialogue—to spark a conversation, to highlight issues that I think are important and to allow people to share laughter, but then have a conversation about it.”

Her passion stems from her upbringing in a conservative Muslim community—her home country ranks 85th globally on the scale of gender parity. “[That's why] a lot of my material focuses on criticising conservative practices and how those practices impact women,” she says. “And the power of humour is that because of its subtlety it can help to address even the most sensitive or difficult topics, and aim the most aggressive attacks at those who are in positions of power.”

Ma’ruf hopes that her very presence in public as a female Muslim comic will encourage other women from all walks of life to eventually feel comfortable enough to share their own stories and opinions. “I want to be acknowledged as a great comedy writer, not just for me, but to really dismantle all of those stereotypes that are preventing women from simply laughing.”

Her bold aspirations have led to global recognition—even if that wasn't the original aim. As well as her selection on the Gen.T List 2019, Ma'ruf was the only Indonesian named in the BBC's 100 Women List 2018, and was awarded the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2015.

Here, Ma’ruf tells Gen.T about four of the biggest moments in her life—turning points that shaped her personal and professional journey, and set her on the path to who she is today.

“Watching Live On Broadway by Robin Williams”

When she was at university, Ma’ruf says she was constantly looking for an outlet to express her creativity, as well as her political views. At first, she turned to student activism, organising rallies and seminars.

But one day—within the space of a few hours, in fact—she realised how she could make a difference in the world.

“I was watching a DVD—well, a pirated DVD to be exact! I was watching Live On Broadway by Robin Williams and I suddenly realised that comedy was there all along,” she says. “[The show] made me see how beautiful comedy is an art form, and how effective comedy is in delivering a message.”

Ma’ruf says she still remembers the jokes Williams made in the performance. “He was joking about the US president at the time, George W Bush, and it made me realise that instead of rallying on the street, protesting government policy—which I’m all for as well—people’s voices can be heard through comedy too. You can talk about everything that is wrong with the economy and governmental policies in one sentence.”

“I’d been looking for a way to express my creativity, so I thought: ‘I have to do this.’ That very year I auditioned for a comedy talent show in Jakarta.”

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Above  Sakdiyah Ma'ruf
It reminded me that I have to continue speaking up about women and sharing women’s stories
Sakdiyah Ma'ruf

Witnessing Gender Inequality In The Flesh

“I experienced domestic violence when I was growing up, when I saw my dad hitting my mum,” says Ma’ruf. “But what frightened me the most wasn't only that it was happening to me and my family, but the fact that it was so common in my community.”

The normalisation of domestic violence, and inequality between men and women in all facets of life, ran deep within her community, says Ma’ruf. “As a child, I remember the father of one of my female friends told her, ‘It’s okay if your husband raises his voice to you, as long as he doesn’t hit you.’”

“That was my earliest realisation of how domestic violence happens in many communities around the world, and how this world still normalises violence against women,” she says. This realisation spurred her to declare to her mother that she never wanted to get married—a declaration that was met with heavy criticism.

“It’s almost like there is this idea that women should be grateful for what they have. That it’s okay if your husband hits you as long as he’s being honest and loyal. It’s okay that he’s marrying another women as long as he’s gentle,” she says. “I realised that it’s simply expected of women to get married regardless of what they’ve gone through.”

“Looking back, at that time, it was really the moment where I realised there was something really wrong with society when it comes to the treatment of women.”

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Above  Sakdiyah Ma'ruf

The Chance Of An Education

“In addition to domestic violence being normalised, I also observed child marriage becoming normalised too. Not just in my community, but in different parts of the country,” says Ma’ruf.

“There was a girl [from Ma’ruf’s high school] that always had straight A's. She was very smart, but she got married before she even got her high school diploma,” says Ma'ruf. “She got married on the last day of high school after her final exams, and it was due to tradition that she couldn’t continue her education.”

Ma’ruf, on the other hand, went on to complete her Masters degree—an opportunity most young women in her community were not afforded.

Years later, Ma’ruf met her again at a celebratory event. “I remember she just casually said, ‘Oh it’s so nice you could continue your education and go to school.’ I don’t think it meant to her as much as it meant to me,” Ma’ruf says. “But it really served as an affirmation to me. It reminded me again of the challenges still faced by women in my community and made me realise that I really am on the right path and that this is what I have to continue doing—to continue speaking up about women and sharing women’s stories.”

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Above  Ma'ruf's partner, Sakdiyah Ma'ruf, Ma'ruf's father
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Above  Sakdiyah Ma'ruf and her partner and child

“The Sign I Was On The Right Path”

Ma’ruf describes feeling like “a complete failure” as she tried to cope with recently losing her father around the same time as giving birth to a little girl.

“It’s devastating to lose your father, but at the same time it’s ecstatic and magical to have a newborn. But you just feel like a complete failure because all of the books you’ve read, all of those guidelines and everything, it feels like a total lie when you’re face-to-face with a newborn—you’re just scared and helpless.”

“I was so overwhelmed, it made me want to just stop—to the point where I almost forgot the reason why I am doing this,” she says. “But in the middle of it all, an email came from the BBC [notifying her that she was named in the BBC’s 100 Women list], and it was like God’s hands telling me that it’s still worth fighting and that I need to continue what I’ve started.”

“In the middle of death and birth and feeling completely helpless, the BBC reminded me that I was worth it, that what I’m doing is risky but that my cause is important to continue.”

See other honourees from The Arts category of the Gen.T List 2019.

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