Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Who is 'Spider-Man' star Zoha Rahman? Meet the actress playing Marvel's first on-screen hijabi character

The British-Pakistani actress plays a watershed role in the latest 'Spider-Man' movie

Zoha Rahman on the 'Spiderman: Far from Home' set. 
Zoha Rahman on the 'Spiderman: Far from Home' set. 

Zoha Rahman has made Marvel history with her appearance in Spider-Man: Far from Home as the first hijabi character to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The comics, of course already feature Kamala Khan, aka Ms Marvel, who is expected to make it to screens in her own movie in future, but so far in the movies, Zoha is a trailblazer.

Taking notice

The eagle-eyed may note that in the opening scenes of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker did have a hijabi class mate, but that was very much an extra. In the shape of Rahman’s character, also called Zoha, we’re talking about a character with a name, lines, a credit among the main cast, and regular screen time with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. Zoha is very much a developed character, not simply a background actress.

In the film, Rahman plays a classmate and buddy of Parker, who joins him on a school trip to Europe, but what do we know about the ground-breaking actress who plays the role?

She first came to our attention when Holland posted some exclusive on-set shots to Instagram late last year, with Rahman prominent among the supporting cast. Twitter was immediately intrigued.

One user posted that he had no idea who that girl was in Holland's Instagram story but if "we’re actually getting a Muslim character who’s more than just an extra in the movie I'm gonna build [director] Jon Watts a shrine":

So who is Zoha Rahman?

Rahman had an intriguing upbringing. She was born in Pakistan, but moved to London with her parents as a teenager in 2012 to complete her education. She studied law at university, but took what she describes in her agency biography as “a great leap of faith” by signing up with the agency to pursue modelling and acting.

Thanks to Rahman’s global background, she speaks four languages fluently – English, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi - and also added basic Mandarin to her CV while at university. As well as the languages she speaks, she lists Arabic, Middle Eastern, Canadian and Pashto as accents that she has in armoury.

The actress is not oblivious to the cultural significance of her latest role. She told Teen Vogue ahead of Far from Home’s release at the weekend: “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.”

In a June interview with Forbes, Rahman slammed what she called the “trio of t’s” when it comes to casting South Asians and Muslims in Hollywood movies – techies, taxi drivers and terrorists being the stock roles available to her peers.

Rahman doesn’t actually wear the hijab on an everyday basis in her own life, and originally auditioned for the role of Zoya without one. Although, thanks to the secrecy of Marvel casting sessions, she didn’t even know what character she was auditioning for in advance. If anything, this seems to have made her even more determined to get the role right: “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.”

Plans for the future

Rahman clearly feels strongly about advocating for more Muslims and South Asians in positive, or even just “normal” roles, and to that end she is writing her own super hero film featuring a Muslim lead.

Perhaps she needn’t rush it though – MCU chief Kevin Feige has already confirmed his plans to bring Ms Marvel to the big screen, and now Rahman is already a part of the Marvel family, surely she’ll be well-placed when the casting comes around for the young, female, Muslim superhero in the not-too-distant future?

“I keep getting this question, and even the speculation is an honour in itself,” she told Vogue. “I really hope we get to make it a reality. But in all honesty, I have no idea. Marvel, if you're reading this, let's make it happen.”

Updated: July 8, 2019 04:35 PM

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