“I’m here to break barriers and stereotypes”, says Misba Khan, an “ordinary” mum turned Rambler turned polar skier. We’re lucky to have spoken to Misba just before she sets off to ski the last degree to the North Pole as part of the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition 2018 led by Felicity Aston. This incredible journey aims to inspire women to reach beyond others’ expectation and fulfil their own ambitions
Coming from a British Pakistani background, Misba’s especially keen on getting ethnic communities involved in outdoor activities and adventures. From her own experience, she knows more needs to be done to encourage Muslim girls to get out there, as one example. For this mission, Misba’s thrilled to have just been awarded a Churchill Fellowship by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.
Here’s Misba’s story of going from “ordinary” (in her words) to “extraordinary” (in ours)! Interview by Jen Claydon.
We’re really inspired by your story of seeking out adventure in adulthood though it wasn’t something you grew up with. Can you tell us how this change came about?
I had an ordinary childhood. I was not the most academic in school. I was married at the age of 20 and the focus of my life was my home, children and a demanding full-time job. In what little time I did have, I enjoyed aerobic and step classes at the gym. Then after my children went to high school, my daughter was doing Duke of Edinburgh and my son Scouts and I realised I also wanted to do something myself. The kids are both very confident in the outdoors about survival, so I was slowly learning things from them. I would look through their books like The idiots guide to map reading, as I couldn’t read a map. I was encouraging them but at the same time I felt there was something missing, perhaps you could say I wanted what they had. I decided to join a group – the Nordic Walkers – for two hours on a Sunday and it started from there. I was happy to leave the kids, who were 13 and 16 by then, at home. But after 4 months I knew I really looking for something more, I wanted to see more of Britain, I wanted to be out all day. One of the ladies understood what I wanted and sent me magazines about the Ramblers, which I joined. That was 10 years ago and ever since I’ve been going all over the place religiously every Sunday. I’ve never missed one. My kids know their mother’s out on a Sunday now.
You’re about to set off to ski the last degree to the North Pole as part of the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition 2018 – tell us about your decision to apply for the expedition.
I came to know about it through a friend who I met trekking Mt Kilimanjaro. We had a reunion, she came to my house and she told me to apply for the expedition. I discussed it with my daughter because at the time I was hoping she would apply. She had done A Level Geography and I was encouraging her. I was thinking “she’s educated, so it’s something for her”. But what stuck out was the line which said they were keen to hear from women who were in their 40s and 50s, so my daughter said “why don’t you apply for it, because you fit in the category?” So when she said that I thought “ok then, I’ll apply for it”, and that’s where it came from.
You’re in a team of 12 women from across Europe and the Middle East and your journey together aims to foster greater dialogue and understanding between women from Western and Arabian cultures. What’s it like being part of this team?
It’s a witty team. We’ve all heard the saying “two heads are better than one”, so imagine having 12 heads, that’s amazing. We all work well together: brainstorming ideas, combining different perspective. It works well because we all rely on each other to bring individual experiences and talents. We build each other up and strengthen each other. We’re a really creative and cohesive group. Some of us are weak in skiing; the European girls are much stronger in skiing, so we’re getting our tips from them. There are cultural and language and social differences too but it is wonderful to share these and learn from each other, after all we’re going to be doing this challenge together.
Selection wasn’t based on individual talent, in fact the criteria was very basic. It was fluent English, reliable internet access, eligible for a full passport, able to swim confidently, willing to commit time and effort to a training schedule on a daily basis, willing to commit the time and effort to fundraising – to sponsorship, and willing to attend the training we did in Iceland and Oman.
And what does it mean to you personally to be on the team?
To me it’s been a learning experience in many different ways. I’m the oldest team member and the youngest is 28. I’ve had to come up with a good level of using social media, because the younger women are very good with tech. They are also more exposed to modern life than I’ve been. They’re very independent and confident and that includes all the Arab girls. I’m from a Pakistani background and I’ve never had the exposure they have, though my daughter has got that. So for me learning to ski has been great, as has learning all the new ways of doing social media from Twitter to Instagram to Facebook. Also putting a tent up and using the stove – these are all new experiences. I’m an ordinary person and a mum and that’s it.
Huge congratulations on becoming a 2018 Churchill Fellow with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. Can you tell us a little about your Fellowship and how you hope your trip will benefit and inspire others back home?
Every year 100 fellowships are awarded for a wide range of projects and these provide a unique opportunity for UK citizens to travel overseas and bring back fresh ideas and new solutions on today’s issues for the benefits of others in the UK. So I thought I’ll give it a go and apply, and it was the icing on the cake for me. More than 1,000 people applied and 270 people were interviewed of which 100 people were awarded the fellowship, so it was very difficult. I think if I didn’t have the support of the Trust it would have been very difficult, and it’s an absolutely huge achievement for me. To have the Trust’s name on the expedition is wonderful and in return I asked them if they had a flag I could take to the North Pole. They didn’t had one, but they had a flag made and delivered to me. So I’ll go to the North Pole and then I’ll pass it on to whoever does it next, maybe someone will take it to the Amazon next.
How about your family, friends and community – how have they reacted to you going on this adventure?
I’m very lucky that I’m supported fully by my family and friends. I sense a lot of excitement from people when they hear about the expedition and you can see that on my social media now. There is a minority who can’t understand why I’m doing what I’m doing, especially at my age. But this is something that they’ll have to resolve. I’m here to break barriers and stereotypes and that is my mission so it’s full steam ahead – as long as my family and friends are supportive it doesn’t matter.
Onto practical points – how do you go about preparing and training to ski to the North Pole?
I thought that by doing my Ramblers walking for that length of time I’d be ready. But I went to Iceland 18 months ago to first meet the team at Felicity’s place and we had five days of intense lectures – it was like being at school. She went through expedition food, map reading, extremities, clothing, how to layer up, and physical fitness. Then the second week Felicity put us on a glacier to put everything into practice from setting up the tent to pulling a sledge – everything we were going to do in the North Pole. I realised I wasn’t fit enough, and after that I came home and increased my training. And then for the second mini expedition we went to Oman to pull a sledge in the desert! So we did 10 days there, it was about adapting – the European girls had to adapt temperatures of +35 in the Arab countries, and how the Arab girls had to adapt to temperatures of -18 in Iceland and you could see the difference. And we’ve just been back to Iceland about 3 weeks ago for another mini expedition so that was our training complete, so hopefully I’m ready.
Since the first trip to Iceland I’ve been pulling a tyre every other day in a park in Manchester near where I live for 1 hour 15 minutes. I’ve got a harness and I go at 8 o’clock in the morning while all the runners are there. Everybody seems to know what I’m doing – they stop and chat. I feel the support of people I meet. You do get comments like “why don’t you just roll it instead?” But there are people who want to stand in the tyre and have a photo taken and they’re all supporting the EuroArabian expedition and following it.
And how do you mentally prepare yourself for a journey like this?
For the mental side I rely a lot on my faith, on my daily prayers. It’s an important part of my discipline and training. Think of how yoga helps people focus. It rejuvenates your body and mind. Prayer enhances my concentration and reduces stress. If I have any issues I use my prayers for that, I get them out through my prayers. We’ve already had the challenge of our flight to the Arctic Ocean sea ice being delayed for 10 days, and I had to rearrange my flights. But what’s meant to be is meant to be. It’s about how we react and adapt to the situation.
How will your faith play a part in the trip itself?
My faith is a central part of everything I do. It governs my values, lifestyle, relationships with family and friends as well as my physical side, my mental, emotional and spiritual well-being – it’s all in one. It’s about understanding why I’m here, my role and my responsibility to everybody else and also the world and the universe, and that actions and behaviour have consequences. So it is a central part of my life and throughout the Ramblers and everything it’s worked well.
What do you expect to be the most challenging aspect of the expedition for the team?
We’ve discussed that and everybody has their own. For some of us it’s the extreme temperatures, unpredictable terrain or wild bears. We have to achieve a set distance every day, because we have a timescale to complete the expedition. That’s going to be a challenge – skiing and sledging over Polar ice caps. Also, we are unable to talk to each other for long periods of time because we can’t just stop and talk so we have hand signals to say, “Are you ok?” “Let’s stop” using our ski poles to put them in a cross on top of our head to say “Stop”. So we’re not talking until we actually get into the tent and also once we’re in the tent we have to live in a confined space so it is a considerable physical and mental challenge. We’ll feel it in different ways. There’s also tiredness, and losing confidence. Because it’s 10 consecutive days of doing the same thing, some people will be feeling emotional and missing home.
And what are you most excited about?
I’m really looking forward to the wilderness and the snow and to actually be at the North Pole. Very few people can say that and I’m very privileged to have this opportunity to go there, it’s really exciting for me – for somebody who’s just really ordinary! Both of my children did A level Geography and I would have loved to have done geography. I have this World map which I look at and imaging travelling the whole world and to places like the North Pole.
Going on a polar expedition may seem far out of many people’s reach. What would you say to women who’d like to do something like this but have never dreamed they could – especially those who haven’t grown up with adventure?
Well it’s just simple, if I can do it, anyone can. Women get the hardest jobs in the world: making and rearing a family is a never-ending task, it’s always demanding and we can easily lose our individual selves in this. So while the North Pole may not be everyone’s idea of an adventure there’s so much out there. You can become an artist or a designer a sports writer or anything you want to and whatever you do, whatever skills you can gather, you’ll shine through it. Just don’t lose yourself in your day-to-day jobs – find something out there for yourself, just like I’ve done. It’ll be 10 years this year with the Ramblers and I’ve found other groups as well, so if I can make time I even go on a Saturday. So I found something for myself and I’ve carried on with it regardless of what people say and I’ve shone through that and learnt so much.
What more can be done to involve more women in expeditions and adventure?
I think the schools have a great part to play. Both of my children did their outdoor activities, the Scouts and Duke of Edinburgh, out of school time. And I know many parents from the Muslim community are often unaware of local sporting opportunities. So I think more structured programmes of sports and activities would help. I also think there should be an increase in participation in sports especially among young Muslim girls; they should be really encouraged but it’s not encouraged for Muslim girls. And role models are very important too. School is mainly on academia and then children come home and have so much homework to do. But they need some time out to explore the world. I want to work with schools and Girlguiding North West: they’re interested in working with me and especially the Muslim community. It’s a must – that interest has to come.
What’s been your involvement with and experience of the Women’s Adventure Expo so far?
I went to Bristol for the Expo last year and I couldn’t believe it – I met the most amazing women. They’d been up Everest, I’ve never even heard of women going to Everest. You only hear about men doing these things and these were all women. I was shocked! They’ve done all kind of extreme sports. When I looked at them I thought “I’m nothing compared to these amazing, talented women” and also, I’m not a confident speaker, and they’re out there speaking on the stage and encouraging others and at the same time they’re down to earth. I loved it – it was brilliant! It was an eye opener.
Finally, what would be the best possible outcome and lasting impact of this amazing cross-cultural expedition?
I really want to get the ethnic community out there. I’d love to work with different groups and communities to help them see there are no barriers or borders. I’m like to help them see where I’ve got to – to be a finished product – after starting from nothing. It would also help a lot to overcome health problems like diabetes, which is very common in our community. I’d love to work with people to get the message out there. I’ve got a quote in my kitchen that says, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
Congratulations Misba on your Churchill Fellowship and thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us just before you set off for Arctic. We can’t wait to follow your inspiring journey to the North Pole and beyond!
Come and meet Misba at our special event Women in the Polar Regions at The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) London on 21st June.