How often do Muslim women see themselves being represented in Hollywood without being stereotyped?
We sure didn’t grow up seeing them on the big screen. Zoha Rahman wants to change that.
The London-based Pakistani can be seen in the new Spider-Man: Far From Home alongside Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal and Zendaya to name a few. And it’s not a background character; she plays the superhero’s hijabi classmate who joins him on a school trip to Europe. That’s quite the big break.
In an interview with Images, the actress opens up about breaking barriers, Hollywood portrayals of South Asian characters and how she stumbled into acting:
1) Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into acting?
Zoha Rahman (ZR): My background always surprises people. So I was born and raised in Pakistan and immigrated to the UK with my family relatively recently to study law and work towards becoming a barrister.
As I started my Master’s degree at Queen Mary, I decided to take this huge leap of faith into the world of acting full-time. I had already been modelling and acting part time for a few years and despite being passionate about it, I always treated it morelike a hobby.
Getting into acting was such a natural process for me, from pretending to be asleep at my friend’s houses hoping my parents would leave me for a sleepover to countless plays in school and university.
I never thought of it as something separate, it was always an innate part of me. Stepping into the professional world of acting came about after I joined my first modelling and started doing some commercials and eventually landed a few roles in movies.
2) Tell us about how you got the role in Spider-Man, like how did you get to know about the audition and how did it feel when you found out you had bagged the role?
ZR: My agent was asked to send options to the casting director for diverse students and they liked my profile and invited me to audition.
I had no idea what I was auditioning for until I signed an NDA at the studios and got the script to audition, I was on camera in 5 minutes and I had just found out I was auditioning for Spider-Man, can you imagine the sensory overload?! Thankfully, I remained calm and my performance was good enough for them to call me back and give me the role.
I found out at a train station actually, it felt incredible! I was in shock, and surprised, nervous, ecstatic, and in disbelief all at once.
3) What was it like shooting for this movie and working with a star cast that includes Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal and Zendaya to name a few?
ZR: I was definitely nervous before my first day, but when you’re on a set, it’s a super professional environment and everything is very fast-paced. We all became friends so quickly, spending all day together, getting hair and makeup done, having lunch, playing games, getting the scenes done.
Everyone was so friendly and so nice, it was amazing for me to be able to see them work and gain from their experiences as well as my own.
4) How was the environment for you as a South Asian woman, working on a big budget movie with a predominantly white cast and crew?
ZR: The cast is actually not predominantly white and I spent most of my time with them. I was very comfortable no matter where I was or who I was with so it never occurred to me that I was a different shade of human.
I don’t think of myself as a ‘South Asian Woman’ on set, because that can be very limiting as a narrative. I am an actress, and I’m doing my job, and I am blessed to have this incredible team around me.
Our collective effort to make this movie a success through long hours and tiring days was at the forefront.
5) Any fun stories to share from the set and shoots? Who was the most fun to work with, who was always late. Give us some scoop.
ZR: I was surrounded by professionals so i don’t have any stories of tardiness I’m afraid but we did have a great time playing silly games and singing songs when we were waiting on set.
One particularly fond memory is of us learning the ‘Candy’, a very popular dance. Only two of us knew it and took it upon ourselves to teach the rest. It was an instant flash mob of us bumping into each other trying to get it right. Eventually, we were all in synch and felt very accomplished!
6) Do you have anything to say about the representation of South Asian/Muslim characters in the MCU? Will your character play a part in it all?
ZR: My character is already breaking barriers, I can’t speak particularly for the MCU but mainstream media in its entirety is a narration of the morals, values and expectations of society that we grow up believing.
Yet we keep seeing caricatures of ourselves and irresponsible portrayals of our cultures, so many of us grow to distance ourselves from our truth for fear of being ridiculed. We are South Asian but we’re not that taxi driver or terrorist kind of South Asian you see in movies, we also don’t have THAT accent from television shows but we know all those things pop up in people’s minds when they see us.
So a Muslim girl seeing herself in a Marvel movie means that her identity as a normal teenager is validated, she is an important fragment of her community, nothing about how she looks is ‘other’. We must have that for everyone, and it is slowly happening. We just need to make it happen faster.
While talking to Teen Vogue, she also said, “I grew up without seeing someone like myself onscreen. And when I did start seeing representations in mainstream media, they were irresponsible and poor. I treated my role as a huge responsibility.”
7) Given that you have previously talked about the stereotypical representation of Muslim/desi characters, was your input sought in the development of your character? Your character wears a hijab in the movie but you don’t in real life so what were your thoughts about that?
ZR: There was originally no talk of a hijab, I was asked only after I had been cast. When they asked me if i was happy to wear a hijab for the role, i said yes and instantly sent them selfies in ammi’s dupatta. So my thoughts on that are pretty clear: I saw the opportunity to represent the multitudes of women and girls that I grew up with and that I admire, and I knew this may well be a turning point for how we are portrayed in mainstream media.
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.
While talking to The National, she also said, “I am Muslim but I do not wear the hijab on a daily basis. I wanted to do it justice. It is not a hat or a costume, and I was determined to give it the respect it deserves.”
8) Do you feel a change in attitudes within the entertainment industry towards the depiction of brown/Muslim characters?
ZR: I do see a slow progression in the diversification of casts and faces being seen on international screens. I believe the change has more to do with the increased visibility of modern Muslims and their truthful, albeit personal portrayals of our cultures.
So I wouldn’t give credit to ‘the West’ for improvement in depictions. Our youth has taken over global platforms, be it social media or the Olympics or international best-selling novels thus demanding our existence be recognised for what it truly is, not just comic relief or fear factors in global media.
The fact is, we have changed the landscape and the mainstream companies are purely catering to their developing audiences. So yes, I can see a shift from South Asian characters being limited to what I call the trio of T’s: taxi drivers, terrorists and techies to more human characters with a wider breadth of narratives.