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‘There were a lot of people who didn’t want to see me on TV’

Jan/23/2023 / by Abhijit Masih
Hena Doba

Guts, gumption and good guides. That’s how Pakistani American broadcast journalist Hena Doba hit the big time

When she is not in the studio reading the news off the teleprompter she is in the boxing ring, punching above her weight, as she has always done in life. Going toe-to-toe against norms, stereotypes and biases, shattering many barriers, one step, one punch at a time.

Hena Doba is a successful and popular face on TV. Formerly with CBS News in New York, she currently a host at Cheddar News, where she anchors multiple shows. As a versatile journalist with over 15 years of experience, she has been a tremendous inspiration for many South Asian and Muslim women who look up to her and aim to be like her.

For a woman of color to break into an unconventional domain and to be the first Pakistani American Muslim woman to be on television in the US was riddled with difficulties and compromises. The biggest among them, the compulsion to change her name for her to be more acceptable on air. Thus, she chose Daniels over her family name Zulfiqar for her on-air identity. It is a compromise she had to painfully swallow for the sake of acceptability at that point of time, when there wasn’t anyone who looked like her in the newsroom. Doba recalls the vivid discussion about the name, “They told me immediately, I need to change my last name. What is Zulfiqar? No one can say it. So I chose Daniels, because in Pakistan it sounded like Daniyaal. So that’s the only way my parents kind of accepted it. I do think a lot has changed. I don’t think today, a news director would ever ask anybody to change their name.”

A year before she was born, her parents moved from Pakistan to Queens, NY, where the Zulfiqars raised their eldest daughter and her younger siblings.

“They moved here, in the lower income area of Queens, right before I was born,: Doba said. “My mom used to actually send me to Pakistan every summer because she knew it was so important for me to know my culture and to know the language. Even at home, I have three younger brothers and we always spoke Urdu. I really didn’t start speaking English, until I got to nursery school. So making sure that our culture was clearly within us was so important to my family.”

For a kid at that time, going to Pakistan while her American friends went to Disney World, was a bummer for young Doba. She struggled with adapting to the dual culture and found it hard to fit in and was left with resentment towards her parents. She admitted, “Now I kind of regret it. Whenever my dad was listening to Noor Jahan or something, and we entered my neighborhood, I would tell him to turn it down. He was also a cab driver when I was young, and he would drop us off at school. That’s how they were trying to make a living and make sure that their kids had the best life. I used to make him peel off the taxi sticker because I was so afraid of that stereotype. But now I regret doing that because I’m so proud of my culture. I’m so glad that they stuck with it. I hated it as a child but it’s one of the best experiences and it made me love our culture.”

The parents, true to their South Asian grain, wanted their first-born to become a doctor. Doba, however, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and psychology, and always had a veiled desire for journalism. She started writing for the school newspaper, just as a side hustle, but more importantly, because she really enjoyed it.

She recalled, “I could never tell my parents I wanted to be on TV. Luckily right after graduation, I got a producer’s job in Watertown, NY. So my parents couldn’t even say anything, because the day after graduation, I had a job. Luckily, their faith in me and my bet of not chasing medicine and just starting to produce at a TV station, a tiny TV station in upstate New York, worked out.”

From there Doba then moved down south to Savannah, Georgia, and later joined WFSB TV in Hartford, Connecticut, where she became the weekend anchor, making her one of the first Pakistani-origin anchors in the United States. The journey from being a behind-the-scene producer to an anchor of a show happened through sheer chance and during the worst tragedy experienced in the US: 9/11.

 “I just happened to be visiting my family in Queens when 9/11 happened,” she recalled. We didn’t have phones back then. So I picked up my camcorder and just hit the streets trying to make my way to 9/11. And I interviewed people on my way. And that’s when ironically, my job changed. I got in front of the camera.”

Being a Muslim in small town America in the aftermath of the horrific day was not easy and it wasn’t smooth sailing for Doba in her new position as an anchor on TV, making her an easy target.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t want to see me on TV,” Doba said. “Especially since it was such a small market and my news director started getting calls: ‘Why are you letting a terrorist on TV?’ ‘Why does she look like one of the terrorists?’”

For the young journalist starting out, this phase was extremely challenging in a small town where everyone wanted her pulled off the news. She realized that she was far away from New York City, her home, which provided her a secure bubble. But she found support in her news director, who didn’t succumb to the pressure and did not pull her off camera.

“He thought about it and luckily left me on camera. That’s how my career began. I wonder if he had given in to all those people, what direction my life would have taken,” the grateful news personality said.

The horror had just begun for Doba and her family. A time of growing anti Muslim sentiments not only across the country but also in the cosmopolitan city like New York, where her parents and three younger brothers lived. She reflects, “I was scared. I was sad. I was scared for my family. I’m first generation but both my parents have heavy accents. I was worried about them. All the cell phone towers were down so I couldn’t get in contact with my family. I have three brothers, one who had a beard one was driving a white van at the time. So I was honestly it was very fearful for my family.” It was the first time in her life that she was exposed to that kind of hate. She knew of its existence deep down, but this was the first time it was out there and in the face.

Away from home and family at the TV station in Watertown, NY was even harder for the young anchor on the news desk. She felt the brunt of the anger since she was a face on the screen that resembled that of the terrorists.

She says, “A lot of that anger did come towards me because I unfortunately, in their opinion looked like a terrorist. It’s not that there weren’t brown people in town. I was just the wrong kind of brown, especially since the terrorist looked just like me and my family. My management team started getting emails about pulling me off the air. Why have a terrorist tell us the news? I had actually some of my colleagues ask why Muslims were so violent. I was called derogatory names, sometimes while I was doing live shots. Now 20 years later, the marginalization of Muslims from social, political and civic life continues.”

A lot has changed for Doba. She moved down south and worked as a reporter in Savannah, GA, then joined WFSB TV in Hartford, CT, before getting a national platform of CBS News. She now works as a correspondent and anchor at Cheddar News.

“I do think a lot has changed,” she admitted. “I don’t think today a news director would ever ask anybody to change their name. Twenty years ago, they did not want Zulfiqar. Now my old station in Connecticut just hired a reporter with a hijab. I think now, it is more of an inclusive environment to make your voices heard, compared to where I was 20 years ago.”

These two decades have seen her go from Zulfiqar to Daniels and now Doba. The last one, chosen not due to a compulsion to conform, but for love. She married Andrew Doba, the former chief spokesperson for the governor of Connecticut, in early 2016. She now spends her time at home doing diverse activities to relax: gardening and boxing. She says, “During the pandemic, I started gardening. Things you don’t do growing up in Queens. I work out twice a week and you’re not going to believe this I box. I work with a trainer and I box in a ring. I have gloves on, I’m punching. You’d be surprised how mentally satisfying it is to just be punching a trainer or a mannequin.”

Doba also has a lot to look forward to as well with reports of her being included in the cast of Real Housewives of New York City. She confirms the reports, “They have reached out to me. We’ve been talking but that’s all I can really say.”

From a rookie reporter to a celebrated news presenter and anchor, Doba has come a long way. Despite challenges, she feels things have always worked out for her.

“It took me years to get to the place where I’m confident enough in my talent and in my work,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d be, in my 40s on television. That was never a thing. But I am and I’m at a young network. Anything more is the cherry on top. Inshallah, everything is going to work out.”

SIDE BAR

Advice to South Asian women, who face the same ordeal, because of the color of their skin or their last name:

“For every person who’s sending that mean email or calling your news director saying they don’t want to look at somebody on TV that looks like me, there’s also a great support team. I’m going to bring up that news director who decided to keep me on TV, those other reporters that said this isn’t fair. So as much as I can talk about how negatively I was treated, I saw the goodness of people, too. I think you just keep going. That’s so easy to say twenty years later, not that I’ve been going through it every day. But now I feel, this is your problem, not mine. I was doing the best job I could if they didn’t want to talk to me, I found somebody who would and who wasn’t such a jerk about it.”

Advice to those who want to be a television anchor like you:

“When I started telling people that I wanted to be on air, people within my community told me I was too dark. I wasn’t pretty enough. I think even within our community there are certain stereotypes that people lean towards. Don’t listen to them. It doesn’t matter. Professionally, always try to get that internship. Get that mentor figure, anchor, reporter you like, whether it’s in your local station or on a national level. Start watching them more closely, reach out to them even. I think internships are very, very important and to know the news.”

On 75th Anniversary of Pakistan’s independence:

“Growing up in America, my experience and memories of Pakistan was always heavily framed by family. Pakistan was this place where we went to visit family and eat delicious food while wearing beautiful traditional outfits. It was hard to separate from that and to see it as a nation with its own political and socioeconomic struggles especially at that age and being surrounded with such rich beauty, culture and traditions. It wasn’t until I was much older that I started paying attention to Pakistan as a whole and looking at the foundation and getting a better understanding of why my parents are such die-hard patriots. I’m blown away by the phenomenal progress Pakistan and India have made over the years from education to modernization but what’s important to remember though is the rigid dichotomy in which the population is living. The disparity between the rich and the poor is ever present and something that cannot be ignored. Which is why legends like Abdul Sattar Edhi had such an impact on the nation & forever shaped the lives of so many.”

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