The first ever hijabi character will appear in Marvel’s latest blockbuster, Spider-Man: Far from Home, this summer. Al Jazeera caught up with Zoha Rahman to talk about her iconic role as Peter Parker’s Muslim friend and how featuring the hijab in Hollywood is helping to break barriers.
When the trailer for the latest Spider-Man film was released back in January, fans were quick to spot the appearance of a hijabi character, leading to a social media frenzy.
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The excitement wasn’t without reason – before that, Muslim representation in Hollywood films had been scarce or reserved for more stereotypical roles depicting Middle Eastern villains. So, for a character to wear the hijab – a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion – in a blockbuster film was a big deal.
Plucked from obscurity
Before landing this career-defining role, Pakistani-born Rahman was a relatively unknown actress and model. She moved to the United Kingdom to study law but took a year out to pursue acting and modelling – her true passion.
“My background always surprises people,” Rahman tells Al Jazeera. “I grew up in Pakistan and immigrated to the UK with my family, where I studied towards becoming a barrister. But halfway through my Masters, I decided to take this huge leap of faith and change my career path.”
The risk paid off and Rahman landed several high-profile campaigns working with brands such as Qatar Airways, the FIFA World Cup, Acuvue and Wagamama, before being chosen to play the role of Peter Parker’s friend in the latest film from the Marvel-Sony Spider-Man franchise.
However, Rahman’s catapult into fame wasn’t straightforward. Coming from a conservative Pakistani Muslim background, her family had their doubts about the suitability of what was considered an untraditional career route in the community.
“The first few times I was scouted, my father said I should focus on my studies and not get involved,” she says. “And when I got offered my first movie role, my mother was completely against it, so I used to hide my projects.”
Although they had their reservations at first, Rahman says her parents eventually accepted her acting career once they saw how seriously she took it. “Because I worked so hard and persevered, they began to realise that this wasn’t a distraction, it really was a career I wanted to pursue.
“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.
“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.”
The role of a lifetime
Until the role in Spider-Man came about, Rahman had only starred in a handful of small films. By chance, her modelling agency sent over her profile for a top-secret role in a film.
“Marvel and Sony take their confidentiality very seriously, so I only found out five minutes before what the part was for and I didn’t have time to fully process it,” she explains.
Luckily, the casting team liked what they saw and Rahman was immediately hired. “I was at a train station when I got the call from production telling me I got the part,” she explains. “I felt so many emotions at once – shock, happiness, nervousness, gratefulness.”
Working on a Hollywood set felt surreal to Rahman: “In all my years of dreaming about working on a Hollywood set, I never thought it would become a reality,” she says. “It’s a sad by-product of the lack of representation on screen that actors like myself never truly believe in themselves.
“The set embodied everything I love about working as an actor and because of how fast paced it was, I got a wealth of experience in just a few months. It was a lot of hard work, very long days and nights, but it was so worth it.”
Rahman kept tight-lipped about her role in the film due to strict confidentiality clauses in her contract. “I’m not allowed to elaborate much on my role – all I can say is that I’m Peter Parker’s friend and we are all on this amazing European trip. You’ll have to catch us in the cinemas to find out more!”
Working alongside actors like Zendaya, Samuel L Jackson and Jake Gyllenhaal also didn’t faze Rahman, who says even the biggest stars were friendly and approachable. “When you’re on set, everyone is professional and nice, so it felt completely normal to work with them.
“We’d be in hair and wardrobe, joke about, have lunch and get the scenes done. It was only when I got home that I’d think to myself: ‘Did I really just do that? Did I really hang out with so-and-so today like it was nothing!?'”
Last year, the film Crazy Rich Asians made history by becoming the first Hollywood blockbuster to have an all-Asian cast. This year, we will see a hijabi character star alongside Peter Parker in Spider-Man, but Rahman still believes that ethnic minority actors struggle in Hollywood.
“The roles that are on offer for actors of colour, like me, are limited,” she says. “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’.”
Rahman also believes that the representation of Muslims on the big screen is negative. “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.”
After Rahman’s whirlwind year, we want to know how she plans to top it and what the future holds.
“I will continue to grasp every opportunity that comes my way,” she says. “I want to create more space for underrepresented actors because this isn’t just about me. I want to colour in every screen I can – literally!”
Spider-Man: Far from Home will be out in cinemas this July.