Interview by Ahmed Al Majid, AJ+ Global Engager for the Middle East and North Africa
Vine star and Instagrammer Amy Roko, 22, is the Gulf’s latest social media sensation. Based in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, Amy took her short comedy sketches to Vine and Instagram hoping to make her friends laugh. In just a few months, she’s garnered 475,000 followers on Instagram and almost 60,000 on Vine. But online fame is especially tricky for women in Saudi Arabia. Amy keeps her real name private (Amy Roko is an online pseudonym), but strangers still show up to take photos of her house. AJ+ talked to Roko about comedy, social media and the challenges of being a comedian in conservative Saudi.
Q: What got you started with short-video comedy?
A: My friends — it was summer vacation, and I don’t know how to sit and do nothing, so I started filming mini videos and sending them to my friends. Then I kind of evolved and started using Vine.
Q: Why did you choose Vine/Instagram as a comedy medium?
A: I started with Vine because I knew the amount of Arabs in there was limited so I could have fun without being judged. That is, until I found out I’m already out there and made an Instagram that exploded in 3 weeks.
Q: Do you wear the niqab (see photo below)? Or is it just part of the Amy Roko character?
A: Yeah, I do wear the niqab.
Q: Do you think you challenge the status quo for women in Saudi Arabia with your videos? What has the reaction been like?
A: I mean, it is a bit weird for a niqabi woman to have a voice because of the image associated with the niqab (timid, scared, fragile, low voice). Then I come out and that in itself is a challenge to the people, because hey, I’m the opposite of what a niqabi should be and it bothered a lot of people. But it also appealed to others.
Q: Do you think comedy is a form of social commentary? How do you use it to turn the mirror on Saudi society? Do you think it’s necessary?
A: It definitely is. Actually, it kind of allows you to say the truth and state facts (even sad ones) in a way that society accepts because they just see it as a joke (which to me is so great or I wouldn’t be able to get away with some of the things that I’ve said). It just shows that whatever I’m doing or saying is something we are all going through (like girl issues with the male figures in their family). I just want it to be out there, you know, like, “Yes, WE ALL GO THROUGH THAT. We’ll be OK one day.”
Q: What’s your motivation when you tackle issues like the driving ban? Do you personally disagree with it and use your comedy to show that?
A: I never straightforwardly (is that a word? LOL) spoke about the driving ban, because there are other people who are tackling the issue and I support them 100%.
My life would be so much easier if I could drive to my college, to the hospital, to the bookstore. Because depending on people is nerve-wracking to me. You know I’m on board and supporting of whatever empowers women.
I don’t even care how society views me anymore. I’m sick and tired of seeing women incapable of living their life because there is no “man” in their life. I’m sick and tired of the way society makes women believe that they are worth nothing without a man. I’m sick and tired of the image that views women as weak and fragile. Man, we birth children out of our wombs, what makes you think we are “weak”?
I see women as powerful beings because they are. I’m not hating on men, but I’m trying to make my voice reach all these clueless young girls. (Whew, got a lil emotional there LOL.)
Q: Did you ever expect to be so popular on the internet?
A: NOOO. My main goal was to have 8,000 followers on Vine. I never expected any of this to happen.
Q: Has your popularity affected your lifestyle/safety?
A: Sigh, where do I start? I’ve gotten threats, people taking pictures of my house and people writing creepy things, but nothing too violent (thank God). It hasn’t really affected my lifestyle. I’m still the same loser, only with a lot of people following me on Instagram.
Q: Why are there so few female comedians in Saudi Arabia?
A: They don’t have the chance to come out. I mean, I’m 100% sure there are so many hilarious girls out there, but they can’t come out. Like my friend, for example, is so hilarious. She would make an amazing comedian. She’s better than I am. But you know how the culture is when it comes to women.
Q: Do you plan to have a YouTube show like more established web celebrities in Saudi Arabia?
A: I’m not sure really. I don’t just want a YouTube show for fun. It needs to have a message, to be honest. Then I might consider it.
Q: What’s next for Amy Roko?
A: I still don’t know, man. I’m going with the flow.