Riz Ahmed made headlines after last week’s Oscars gala, but not for the reason you think.

Rizwan Ahmed, more famously known as Riz Ahmed, made history at the 93rd Oscars as the first Muslim to ever be nominated for Best Actor for his role as Ruben Stone in “The Sound Of Metal”. The announcement of his nomination was lauded by the Muslim world, with Pakistani celebrities tweeting in their congratulations. The community considered this to be a shared victory, as the impact of his recognition would trickle down and surely help pave the path for more inclusive storylines and casting in Hollywood.   

Learning that a person of Pakistani descent was being recognized for his acting struck a chord with me. As someone who’s accustomed to seeing Indian actors hold a monopoly on South Asian representation (Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh lumped together) in international media, this felt surreal. 

However, despite his notable achievements, what made his name trend globally on social media was this 30-second clip of him stopping to “fix” his wife, Fatima’s hair on the red carpet.

With his name trending on Twitter, and so many people lamenting how they didn’t have “a Riz Ahmed”, writing articles dubbing them “couple goals” or just expressing how jealous they were of Fatima, let us dissect why a small moment of shared intimacy had such a profound impact on so many people. 

To unpack why such a simple gesture had everyone talking, we should first recall the decades-long anti-Muslim propaganda so conveniently threaded into Hollywood films. Muslim men post 9/11 have overwhelmingly occupied negative roles, with a long-running joke about Hollywood having no trouble finding brown actors to be cast as terrorists. Most movie plotlines since the early 2000s have only served to further propagate hatred towards the Muslim community by typecasting them as terrorists. The general perception of brown Muslims due to exposure to such media has been empirically proven to result in promoting violence towards them.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, where most of the directors are male, masculinity is defined almost exclusively through the male gaze. “Soft traits” such as empathy and kindness are implicitly discouraged and the prevailing message of what it means to be a man is polluted by such regressive ideas of masculinity.

Popular dramas tend to shy away from social upheaval and stick to the script of upholding a patriarchal narrative. It is more common to see domestic violence romanticized on-screen instead of real romance (because that would be crossing a line, of course). This results in a sickening majority of the population holding warped views about acceptable displays of affection in relationships. 

It is more common to see domestic violence romanticized on-screen instead of real romance

Desi culture prides itself on being more conservative than “the West”. Many of us have grown up without really ever seeing our parents be openly affectionate towards each other. We are taught that there is inherent shame in expressing our feelings. This has grown to have a lasting impact on generations of brown kids. This mentality criminalizes intimacy while considering the acknowledgement of romantic feelings to be scandalous and disrespectful instead of just human.

This isn’t the first time Riz Ahmed and Fatima Farheen have had everyone talking about their relationship. When the news of their coffee shop meet-cute, scrabble tile proposal, and private, mid-lockdown wedding broke out, people were quick to call their story a real-life rom-com. This is especially significant because the majority of the people who feel represented by them belong to a culture of arranged marriages. To this day, the idea of families not being heavily involved in the matchmaking process is foreign to South Asians. An individual choosing their spouse is said to have had a “love marriage” (the word “love” having to be specified to add to the gossip-worthy nature of the news), with the subtle implication of it being a detraction from the norm, where love comes after marriage.

These factors combined, help explain why Desi Twitter and so many international publications reacted the way they did.

Riz is a Muslim of Pakistani descent, and despite existing at the intersection of both identities, he chooses to embrace his own definition of masculinity. This results in the simplest of gestures having the greatest impact.

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  • Izzah Khan

    Izzah Khan is a Pakistan-based freelance writer who is very opinionated and often finds herself launching into politically charged tirades about lived experiences and an ever-growing list of interests. Current passions include climate advocacy and desi indie music.