International news presenter Mishal Husain talks about life in the fast lane and raising three children in the midst of it all.
WHEN Malaysia hosted the First Ladies Summit 2010 earlier last month, it came as no surprise that Mishal Husain should be appointed (in her own capacity) to moderate the discussion between five selected First Ladies. Followers of BBC World News’ flagship Impact Asia would be familiar with her style.
She is knowledgeable, warm and her straight-to-the-point yet tactful approach has garnered her a solid reputation for handling tough issues.
It’s a beautiful afternoon when Mishal breezes over for our meeting at the glass enclosed lunch hall at the exquisite Palace of the Golden Horses in Selangor. The First Ladies discussion is behind her and she will be boarding the next homebound flight later in the evening. It has been a brief but busy trip for the 37-year-old mother of three, but there’s not a sign of stress on her flawless skin. She looks composed and reasonably relaxed. As we exchange greetings, I experience firsthand her appeal to the international audience. Elegant, poised and articulate, the striking brunette is every bit the world-class news presenter that she is.
Born to expatriate Pakistani parents in Britain, Mishal grew up in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, and later returned to Britain to be educated in a boarding school. Now blissfully married to a lawyer, she too had read law at Cambridge University but switched paths to pursue a career in journalism, backed by a Masters degree in human rights law.
‘To me, the most important thing is fulfilling your purpose,’ says Mishal Husain.
“At that time I suppose I had tentative plans for a career in law but it was during the course of my degree that I decided that I wanted to explore a different path,” Mishal says. “There was always an expectation that I would do well. They are very encouraging parents who never doubted that I would try my hardest in anything I put my hands on.”
Asked if breaking into the world of broadcast journalism as a woman was difficult for her, she explains that the challenges she encountered had little to do with gender. The journalism scene in Britain in earlier decades was tough on aspirants because training schemes were scarce. “It’s much easier nowadays because technology has become so much more accessible, and there are more avenues now for a fresh person who’s trying to get a foothold in the industry.”
With her law degree in the bag, Mishal started doing some work for BBC when her big break eventually came. Flair, grit, perseverance and a likeable personality worked to her advantage, earning her a spot as BBC’s first Washington-based presenter, fronting news programmes around the time of the Iraq war. A typical morning in the newsroom finds Mishal and her team in an editorial meeting where they look at international happenings to decide on the lead story.
“I work closely with my team, especially the producer. A good one tells me what to look out for but ultimately, it’s our job as journalists to do proper research beforehand,” she adds.
To this day, her work continues to bring her on brief but frequent trips around her world to cover breaking news. I ask about the time she travelled around Britain, India and South Africa to film a three-part documentary series on the life of Mahatma Gandhi.
“We wanted a more rounded view that included the controversial aspects of his life. Also, because more about Gandhi had emerged in the last few decades,” she explains. “Initially, I wasn’t aware how much was involved the project but I grew to be very thankful for it because my appreciation for Gandhi’s work heightened through this. He made a huge effort to include Muslims and I was very moved by how many lives he touched.
“There were about 50 days of filming, which wasn’t done all at once, fortunately, so I could see my family in between,” says Mishal, who perks up at the mention of her family. She gave birth to her first son six years ago and within 18 months, had a set of twin boys. “I try to do short trips if possible. We have a nanny to help out and I’m thankful that my husband is extremely supportive of my work. As for my sons, they’re still too young to give me a hard time about my travels!” she says with a laugh.
As I graze over the topic of free time and hobbies, Mishal repeats, “Free time?” with such incredulity that we both laugh out loud. I quickly realise that “free time” does not really exist in her vocabulary nor in her world. “I try to play tennis but I don’t really have the time for it,” she says with a smile.
She keeps her mind busy by finding time to read on the go and admits to feeling “slightly panicky” if she’s on the plane without a book. She enjoys contemporary fiction, romance sagas and mystery – all of which are a break from her usual dealings with hard news. As I learn more about her life, I’m amazed at how she manages to stay abreast with so many topics, from entertainment to sports, historical figures to contemporary issues. She recognises that while what’s demanded of her is challenging, it’s crucial that one has an inherently curious mind about the world.
Her heart for women and their cause is apparent in her speech as it is in her lifestyle. “Invariably those First Ladies have a lot in common. They are professionals who are then suddenly known only as the wife of their husband. It’s amazing how they cope with all the scrutiny,” Mishal says.
She empathises with women who often have the bulk of the responsibility heaped on them. “I have tremendous respect for women who combine career and motherhood. So many of them are keeping their minds active by reading and getting involved in the world around them. Being a mother often comes with domestic responsibilities which you have to work around rather than fight against.”
As our enjoyable conversation comes to an end, she leaves me this final message: “To me, the most important thing is fulfilling your purpose. There are many people out there who are empowered to do great things even with very little education.”
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