As a part of our Thinking Big Interview Series, The NewsRun caught up with actress and model, Zoha Rahman, to talk about her Pakistani background, her career journey, and her iconic role as Peter Parker’s Muslim classmate in Spider-Man: Far from Home. She is known as the first “hijab wearing character” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who was more than just an extra.
Zoha was born in a small town in Pakistan called Jhelum. She moved to the United Kingdom (UK) with her family when she was a teenager. Even though she has given numerous interviews with other publications, few have delved into her Pakistani origins. That’s why we made it a point to learn more about her life in Pakistan.
During her time in Pakistan, Zoha lived in a new city every two years since her father was in the army. She lived in Karachi the longest, loved Khanewal the most, and misses Islamabad a lot. While reflecting on her childhood in Pakistan, she said some of her favorite memories are:
“Summers spent with my cousins, we would get spicy corn from street vendors on our way up the winding streets to Nathia Gali. Spending chilly winter evenings having ice cream and brownies at Hot Spot. Eid…everyone getting up early for Namaz and Sawayyan, getting dressed up and getting Eidi from the elders. Spending time with my grandparents and listening to their stories.”
Even though Zoha moved to the UK years ago, she still makes an effort to follow the news coming out of Pakistan. She mostly reads The NewsRun (woohoo!!) and ProperGaanda to keep up with Pakistani news. Zoha tries to visit Pakistan at least once a year for at least two weeks. Her schedule is currently jam packed, to the point where it’s hard for her to find three free days in a row!
It looks like Zoha’s career is keeping her really busy. Her long-time fascination with the arts and performing motivated her to pursue acting and modelling. However, like the beginning of any career, Zoha faced challenges as well. A lack of self assurance was her biggest obstacle. She decided to complete a professional course to remedy that. However, she still sees herself being limited by a lack of opportunities. After working in the West, she believes her external appearance and heritage will always be a primary casting requirement:
“I have spoken out a lot about how the only roles coming my way are basic and stereotypical. Being pigeon holed in the infancy of my career is an excruciating challenge,” she said.
Despite her challenges, Zoha managed to land a role in the Spider Man: Far from Home movie. When asked about her most memorable experience on the set of Spider Man, she said:
“…Every day on set brought on new challenges and new lessons, new games and new friends. I suppose one of the most memorable days was actually the first one. That’s when everyone met for the first time and we shot our first scene together. We gelled so well, we knew this project was more than just a film, and we became close very quickly.”
Zoha also admired her character in the movie:
“Zoha from Spider-Man (yes, they stole my actual name for the character), is a super intelligent teen having a great time with her friends on a school science trip, which was only open to the top students. The best thing about her is that her hijab is never seen as something that is ‘other’ or negative. She’s just a normal high schooler. So for me, her passion for science and hard work is impressive, and I suppose her eye rolls are admirable too,” she said.
Since Zoha starred in a superhero movie, it felt fitting to ask her who she thinks Pakistan’s real-life superheroes are. After reading Pakistan for Women by Maliha Abidi, Zoha realized there is no shortage of Pakistani superheroes. She also pointed out deceased social activist, Parveen Rehman, and described her as:
“…an incredible woman who discovered and subsequently worked tirelessly for the rights of working class communities in Karachi, particularly for access to water and land titles…her martyrdom in the course of justice makes her a true superhero for me.”
Zoha has some exciting projects coming up, like Kabir Khan’s film, ’83, which is based on the 1983 Cricket World Cup. She’s also looking forward to the release of Young Wallander on Netflix. Her episode will likely come out next year. Even though it’s a small role, it’s her first step into Netflix.
When asked about her biggest source of inspiration, Zoha said she tends to pick up specific traits from people she admires:
“Perseverance from my brother who is deaf, but never lets that get in the way of his living a normal live. Unconditional love from my Dadi, who moved to Pakistan from Austria when she was 20 years old in the 1950s for love and never looked back. Strength and confidence from my husband, who always encourages me to keep pushing and to never take no for an answer.”
Zoha has some valuable advice for aspiring Muslim actors. Here is what she said:
“We always let people guilt us out of things we are passionate about, whether it is parents or friends or far relations, they will try to tell you things are ‘un-islamic’ or ‘un-pakistani’. Just remind yourself that being a good, kind human being is the most important thing there is. I also wish young actors knew that they have an entire galaxy of talent within themselves and all they need to do is let the creative juices flow, no matter what it is, from the smallest of productions, to Youtube videos you can make at home, to creating something with a friend. If you love to act, then go and ACT. This modern world gives you so much power that can be harnessed into incredible things.”