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No Hope, No Nothing: On Becoming a Muslim Comedienne in Indonesia

07/17/2014 08:52 am ET | Updated Sep 16, 2014
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Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, is home to a diverse population of Muslims. Some wear a turban and beard, some others sport fake eyelashes and mascara. I am fortunate to be able to fish for comedy in between these two poles.

One of the most prominent comedians in Indonesia, Butet Kertaredjasa, persistently conveys that "urip iku mung mampir ngguyu" ("life is simply a stop for a laugh"), a twist from popular Javanese proverb "urip mung mampir ngombe" ("life is simply a stop for a drink") which refers to the superficiality and temporariness of living in this world compared to the anticipated eternal life in heaven. Personally, the version proposed by Mr. Kertaredjasa could not be more correct as irony of life comes to me voluntarily since I was very young.

Growing up in a family of an Arab-descent minority group in a small town at the northern coast of Java, I was born with the default expectation that I would grow up into a decent, Muslim girl who will continue preserving her religious and ethnic identity by carefully grooming herself through childhood and adolescence to earn the love of a rich and respected man from the community. Thirty-two years later, I am not even close to landing this potential husband. Instead, I have been taking the stage speaking about issues of Muslim, women and minorities.

The community that I grew up in has tried hard to establish and re-establish their Arab identity in Indonesia. Efforts are seriously put into building the identity. They include praying for mischievous politicians and celebrities while watching news about them, criticizing the television preachers for not conveying the truest and purest Islamic teachings because supposedly "our community knows better," importing French perfume from Saudi Arabia, and spying at your cousins' blogs to make sure that they do not convert into moderate or worse yet, liberal Islam.

To be fair, not everything is that "bad" in our culture. I can proudly say that I will always cherish the food and the women. I enjoy the congregation of mothers and aunties. It is always empowering to be among older women in my community specifically during family gatherings. It almost feels like we can finally have our own vote. All we have to do is to cook for the men, feed them well and we are free at least for a moment. Important decisions regarding education, marriage, your future remain in the hands of men of course.

I've never been able to completely relate to this process of reproduction of identity. I am fully aware that I am living in Java -- not in the middle of desert. I enjoy American sitcoms more than televised da'wah. I don't speak Arabic like most of my cousins, and I firmly think that ethnic purity that my community claims is nothing but hallucination as we are all actually mixed blood having been living in Indonesia since the Colonial Era. In fact, it may also hurt our religiosity as I belief Allah created us free and equal and will not judge us, except for our obedience and devotion to Him.

Looking for a way to speak out about this is not as easy. I left home to pursue higher education only to find that some of my friends in college have turned into my cousins! They were speaking in Arabic and practicing separation between men and women in public space. I left home only to return. Here I am, pretending to be of Arabic descent, then pretending to be Javanese, only to find myself exposed to a situation forcing me to go back to my Arab identity -- at least what some perceived as Arab identity -- to assert not my ethnic identity but my identity as Muslim.

For almost a decade following democracy, Indonesia has witnessed a significant growth of turban-wearing, beard-growing, loud-screaming Muslims encouraging the Islam that does not tolerate women and minorities to speak up. On the other side of the street, turbans apparently gets along really well with make-up, lipstick and fake eyelashes as democracy also witnessed the growth of Muslim fashionistas seeking for piety through layers of fabrics, blush-on, lipstick and promoting Islam through making sure that they have their latest selfies in latest hijab styles posted on Instagram.

I now understand that I am not alone. Indonesian Muslims including myself are gradually becoming strangers in their own skin struggling to cope with the socially-constructed standard of becoming good Muslims by trying to look and act as Arab as possible. Somebody has to say something. Really! But how?!

Comedy found me in 2009. I have been enjoying U.S. sitcoms and comedy features since I was at elementary school. Little did I know that this will be one of my paths of devotion to God, my community and my country, Indonesia. In 2009, I found the DVD of Robin Williams' Live on Broadway, watched it several times and immediately knew that "this is it." Comedy is amazingly subtle, yet profoundly controversial, in its wordplays and wit. From then on, I started doing stand-up. Stand-up teaches me to be completely honest with myself, my experience and my flaws. I remember starting mild by talking about myself being an old-maid in the eyes of Arab descent community, but that Javanese men also have no mercy as they firmly belief that I should and will marry someone from Arab descent community. No hope, no boyfriend, no nothing. I then gradually move to addressing issues of violence committed in the name of Islam and issues surrounding the irony of Muslim fashionistas.

In the midst of not self-censorship but extended families censorship, I have been lucky to be able to participate in stand up talent show at KOMPAS TV, one of the newly established private TV stations in Indonesia, performed at local cafés in Jakarta and joined hands with fellow comediennes in our independently organized show called PerempuanBerHAK (Women's Rights).

Certainly, challenge persist for Muslim women to speak up, but I will not stop.