Spiderman: Far From Home, recently hit theatres and the internet is abuzz after noticing a significant appearance from what is Marvel’s first hijab clad main cast member. Cue Zoha Rahman, a British Pakistani Muslim who plays the role of Peter Parker’s classmate in the new blockbuster hit. Rahman, who grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan, immigrated to the UK with her family and began pursuing her Master’s degree to become a barrister. It was during this time that she decided to change fields, and take up acting. After slowly making waves and getting scouted by brands and companies like Qatar Airways, Acuvue, and Wagamama, Zoha landed her first big screen role in Spiderman’s latest instalment.
Speaking to Morocco World News, Zoha recalls the initial hurdle of getting her parents to see the value in pursuing acting. At first, her parents did not support her decision to abandon law and focus on acting. Noting, “we are a people who have known centuries of strife, constant readjustment, and continuous scrutiny, so it’s no surprise that the community wants stability and prosperity for their children and will always encourage a more secure career path. A safer option.”
Slowly but surely, once they began noticing that their daughter’s hard work, dedication to her craft, and love for what she was pursuing, pay off, they became her biggest fans. “Now they have magazines that I’m featured in on their coffee table and they proudly show them to their friends! It was a journey of growth and understanding for us all.”
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This is the hardest, and by far the best secret I’ve ever had to keep. . . When I was asked if I was happy to wear a hijab for this role I basically jumped into it, full force, sent selfies in a dupatta as a hijab straight away to the casting director. . . You see, I was a little brown girl who watched movies and adverts and tv shows and cartoons and billboards but never saw herself. So this was a private little mission, to see myself where little brown girls didn’t belong. And as this grew, I realised how selfish I had been to think I was the only one thinking and feeling and hoping the way I was. So this one’s for all of us little brown girls, all of us little girls, all of us little boys, all of us changing the stories we tell from now on ✨ . . 📸 PC @remyhii 📸
Marvel Universe fans all over the world are celebrating Zoha’s appearance as a major step towards diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. Finally, a female muslim who dons the hijab. A hijabi that is not depicted as oppressed or powerless. A Muslim woman who is not wearing a boring, drab, one piece hijab that the costume department did zero research on. Zoha’s character can be seen wearing chiffon hijabs, and cotton blend hijabs, all in a variety of colours and styles. She is not a last choice option for Marvel. They treated her with the same respect as any other character and made the effort to include her in decision making when it came to her character’s outfits. Why? Because they wanted to ask an actual Muslim woman how Muslim women dress. A stark revelation to the majority of Hollywood Executives these days. Kudos to you, Marvel.
When speaking with BuzzFeed, Zoha mentions this process:
“Well, I don’t wear the hijab apart from when I pray, but I was still very conscious of not treating it as just part of a costume. It’s not just a hat, and I was always mindful of respecting what I was representing.
In terms of everyone around me, I definitely felt a bit of hesitation from those who had only seen me in a hijab. Keep in mind, wardrobe and makeup are the first things we get done on set, so most people did not see me without one until we had our first cast and crew gathering, where some people didn’t recognise me.
It was a very “Clark Kent/Superman” moment for me, or should I say “Peter Parker/Spider-Man”, especially in Europe. But the best part for me was being able to give my input. I styled the hijab myself and I worked with the wardrobe team, deciding on styles to wrap it and on certain costume details, as sometimes I felt the sleeves were too short or there needed to be tights under a skirt in order for the outfit to be modest enough for a hijab-wearing teenager, with no compromise on style.”
She went on to explain where she got inspiration from on her styling:
“Usually when you see a hijab in the movies or on [a] TV show, it’s usually a tight, unflattering fit that’s, quite frankly, a ready-made version of what an actual teenager would never actually wear. I took ideas from a lot of hijabi-style bloggers on Instagram, a lot of whom are actually my friends, and a lot of them wear hijabs, so there’s a lot of inspiration out there. When I first went into wardrobe for fittings, they actually gave me a piece of cloth — well, it was a scarf. I guess it had a single stitch in it and there was a hole for the face. Not to say anything wrong about the wardrobe department, but honestly, they didn’t know what they were doing.
I said, “Guys, what is this?” They said: “Oh my gosh, do you know how to tie one?” I was like, yes, I do, and they were so relieved. I could see on their faces that this was something that was really troubling them.
They said they needed to cater to continuity, obviously, because for them, having the hijab in the exact same place all day was important because that’s what you need for filming.”
Whilst many around the world are celebrating Zoha and commending Marvel for promoting diversity, others are calling for more. Whilst this is a monumental step towards representation in the media and film, is it enough? A hijab clad Muslim woman is cast alongside Marvel’s finest. Yet, her role is one-dimensional. She has all of one sentence to say in the film. She is being labelled as the “token Muslim” and ridiculed online for taking such a seemingly pointless role that does nothing to push for real inclusion. Zoha rebukes these claims by stating, “It’s a sad by-product of the lack of representation on screen that actors like myself never truly believe in themselves. I feel like the Muslim identity is used as an agenda in the media, we rarely see someone who is going about their life and just happens to be a Muslim. I do see a change, but it needs to get better on a much larger scale,” Rahman said. “The roles that are on offer for actors of color, like me, are limited,” she said. “It’s always a sidekick, or a best friend or a shopkeeper. I want to work towards getting into audition rooms where I am seen as an actor who can play any role, not just the ‘South Asian woman’ or the ‘Muslim woman’.” Zoha does however, stay hopeful. “I will continue to grasp every opportunity that comes my way,” she said. “I want to create more space for underrepresented actors because this isn’t just about me. I want to color in every screen I can – literally!”
As Marvel continues to promote their film, Zoha’s character is left as a nice surprise for movie-goers. She pops up in an instance and audiences are left wondering if she is there to stay. And she certainly is. The role, though small and seemingly insignificant, means a lot to many Muslim women all over the world. Rahman recalls an encounter that stuck with her in particular.
“On one of the biggest sets, I remember I had a member of the security team come up to me as I was walking to get lunch. She was wearing a hijab herself and was a woman of colour. She politely asked me if I was a Muslim and if I wore the hijab myself. I told her that yes, I was a Muslim, but I didn’t wear the hijab. She hugged me super tight and said, “Mashallah, I am so happy to see someone like you in such a big movie; I can’t wait to tell my daughters.
Her warmth and genuine happiness meant so much to me; I definitely went back to my trailer and let a few tears fall, and it just reinforced how badly I want to keep fighting the careless representations in mainstream media afforded to people of colour. Since then, I have had so many messages from fans of the MCU telling me they can’t wait to see me onscreen, or that they are so excited to finally have someone like them or like their mother for them to look up to. The support I have received so far has been incredible, and I hope I can make all these people proud.”
Marvel has made huge waves by casting a visible Muslim in a positive role in one of their blockbuster franchises. Zoha, and the rest of the Muslim world, are excited for change to come to Hollywood. Looks like Peter Parker’s Muslim friend is a little bit of a superhero herself.