Young Muslim Comic Takes On Fundamentalists

By Antonia Marrero for the Moral Courage Project

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia — “I always believe in this,” says comedian Sakdiyah Ma'ruf. “Good comedy makes you laugh, great comedy makes you cry.”

Tom Cruise and Jon Bon Jovi constantly visited her when she was a little girl. Granted, little girls hosting imaginary friends is a childhood staple, but controversial comic Sakdiyah Ma'ruf cracked me up when she mischievously suggested that they still visit sometimes.

To clarify, Sakdiyah conversed with Tom and Jon in English, which she was quick to point out as perfectly logical, being that they're American. Growing up in Java, the world's most populous island, she taught herself English by watching sitcoms like The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Seinfeld and Full House, all of which featured subtitles in Bahasa Indonesia.

About the time Sakdiyah was in middle school, she discovered that the stars of her favorite shows were actually stand-up comics. Her path became clear. These days, she works a vibrant Indonesian club scene and performs on TV. Producers have asked her to censor her own jokes, telling her that she is "too conceptual, theoretical, laden with message," but the stakes are too high for Sakdiyah to shut up. Just days ago, a young Indonesian widow from the neighboring island of Sumatra was sentenced to public caning for breaking Sharia law. The widow's crime? Surviving a gang rape.

When I ask why she wears a veil in a society where it's optional, Sakdiyah explains how it frees her. For her, the veil counters impossible beauty standards. It asserts ownership over her own body. Her use of the veil is also a way she resists the gravitational pull of the fashion industry, allowing her to focus on issues of justice, violence and equality. In her work, Sakdiyah describes herself as "almost pretty," a bittersweet phrase suggesting the implicit mandate of aesthetic potential: the dream that drives advertising. Never mind that she's as cute as a button, her lens of self-valuation is as universal as it is poignant.

Sakdiyah raves about her influences: Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Margaret Cho, Roseanne, Ellen, Kathy Griffin, Robin Williams, Stephen Colbert, Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais and Jerry Seinfeld. Her favorite comic is Louis C.K. She says his most recent special satirizes aspects of human nature so ugly, so unbearable, that she can only weep as he redeems misery with insight. Great comedy mirrors the hypocrisy of a culture, which means it hurts real bad. It condenses pain into tiny joke pellets, like a mass-immunization that builds tolerance and vigor. Great comedy is truth. And Sakdiyah is chasing truth.