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Fighting to be funny: Sakdiyah Ma’Ruf gets serious at Sydney Ideas

21 November 2016
How one woman is bridging cultural divides through comedy

The first Indonesian female Muslim stand-up comedian walks into a university…No, it doesn’t have a punch-line, but it’s what happened last week when pioneering comic Sakdiyah Ma’ruf joined the Chaser’s Julian Morrow, an alum of the University (BA ’95 LLB ’98), to discuss the serious side of comedy. 

As part of the Sydney Ideas event, ‘The virtues of self-censorship: Islam, comedy and the (punch) line,’ Ms Ma’ruf talked candidly about the barriers and contradictions that come with performing stand-up as a woman of strong Islamic faith.

Welcomed by a packed house of 350 people, she spoke about the contradictions of doing gigs in bars as a Muslim, which had led to more interviews than comedy jobs.

Women across the board were also still treated like a curiosity, she said.

“In the event, that there are funny women you are sort of acknowledged as being brave and unique, instead of being acknowledged for your art.

“Something is still in the way for female comedians.”

Recognised with The 2015 Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent, Ms Ma’ruf, who has a Master in American Studies, pointed to a correlation between the growing number of Muslim comics and 9/11, stressing that comedians had become more prominent as a way to passively push back on an atmosphere of fear and distrust that had become more prevalent in society.

Raised in a traditional Muslim family in Indonesia, Ms Ma’ruf said her family remained somewhat reserved about her chosen profession, especially as her jokes addressed controversial topics including sex, and Islamic culture.

It’s an uneasiness that Ms Ma’ruf said she felt too, even as she is emboldened on stage.

Retaining her faith, she confessed that she often felt confused when faced with a drunk crowd, or when dealing with sensitive topics, but believed that comedians had a responsibility to illuminate contentious racial and societal issues through humour.

“Doing stand-up and doing art, in general, at this time it is not only about it being your hobby or your passion, I believe that in a world which is growing increasingly divided, comedy, and art in general, is very important to bridge communication and help people of different backgrounds connect in the society.”

Sakdiyah Ma’ruf and The Chaser were guests of Sydney Ideas and the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre. To hear the podcast of this Sydney Ideas talk, click here