As a young girl growing up in England’s central industrial heartlands, Seema Yasmin never suspected that one day she would become a disease detective and international leading voice debunking the myths surrounding a viral pandemic.
In a single-parent household, in an area where women worked long hours tirelessly at the factory down the road while bringing up children, praying and cooking, Yasmin's life then couldn’t be farther from the one she has now.
Yet it was her upbringing in two different households, by two strong but polar-opposite sisters, that led her to challenge the perceptions of what it is to be a Muslim woman – and then to break the mould. Now her new book, Muslim Women Are Everything, will help others do the same.
The Cambridge-educated doctor, who is a champion in the field of disease and epidemics, a poet, an Emmy award-winning journalist and an author, has not so much pushed at the many boundaries that once stood in her way as smashed through them.
[ Read an exclusive excerpt of Seema Yasmin's book 'Muslim Women are Everything' here ]
In her book, she recounts the achievements of Muslim women around the world and their battles against racial and gender prejudice to become leaders in their chosen specialities.
"I was so fed up with the stereotypes given to Muslim women," Yasmin told The National.
“We are so much more. We don’t just iron. We do perform open heart surgery and we do fly into space. People have these narrow stereotypes of what Muslim women are like. We have a Muslim woman who won an Olympic medal for fencing, and people would say: ‘Oh, my, can Muslim women go to the Olympics?’
“I posted an angry tweet about it three years ago because I was really fed up of Muslim women being patronised. It was seen by an editor who asked me to write about it. I declined but wrote about what we actually do, the real-life inspiring Muslim women who have so many challenges put in their way but overcome them.”
Yasmin, 38, is now a British physician and works as director of research and education at the Stanford Health Communication Initiative at Stanford University in California.
During the coronavirus outbreak, she has been a crucial voice of medical expertise and reason, specialising in debunking the misinformation and disinformation circulating around Covid-19.
For years she was an officer in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, working as a kind of disease detective, in some of the world’s poorest countries. Now she saves lives through her communication skills.
It is all a far cry from her humble upbringing in the working-class, industrial town of Nuneaton.
“My mum had me at 19 and she worked in a factory,” Yasmin recalls. “We were not a posh academic family. My mum was a single parent and my childhood was spent living with her or my aunt,” she said.
“I grew up with two strong Muslim women who were both so different. My devout aunt wore a niqab, she said prayers more than five times a day and raised me alongside her three children while working in a factory and teaching us to cook. My mum didn’t wear the veil and she left her home to go to university. They were so different. I was so lucky to have these amazing, strong women.”
One of her first memories is from the age of about five when her mother, planning a better life for just the two of them, would hide the text books she was studying. A year later, Yasmin’s parents divorced and her mother left the world she had previously known to go to university.
Yasmin recalls being in a dorm room at Lancaster University as her mother frantically finished off an essay while students played Madonna songs full blast in the next room.
The rest of her early years were spent living with her aunt in a strict Muslim household, attending the madrasa and interspersed with visits to her mother’s cosmopolitan campus life.
She said it was only at the age of 14 when she moved to London with her mother that she realised there was a different world available to Muslim women. Only two years earlier, she had taken the decision to wear the hijab and had been deeply religious.
“I realised that Muslim women were everything and could be anything,” she said. “It changed my perspective and diversified my world.”
It was her mother’s courage to strive for a better life that led Seema, then 17, to change her surname from Halima to her mother’s first name, Yasmin.
Later, she went to medical school where she became Dr Yasmin, worked for the National Health Service and was subsequently offered a role in the investigation of epidemics in the United States.
“When you are young and trying to figure out your career, there is no way I envisaged going to medical school,” she said. “You have to be really flexible and open to opportunities that come along.
“The women in my book show what can be achieved. It was really hard to choose the selection: I wanted Muslim women from across the world, from Africa to Brazil, to tell their stories.”
One of her favourites is that of Laleh Seddigh, the Iranian racing driver who is known as the little Schumacher. “She really stands out to me,” Yasmin said. “She would regularly beat the men and they keep disqualifying her for it. Even when she wins, they cut her out of the coverage but she just perseveres.
“Another is Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen just for wanting education for girls.
“I wish I had been exposed to their stories when I was younger. Anyone who has misconceptions about Muslim women can read this book and see their achievements. There are Muslim scientists, astronauts, ballerinas, poets – they are unstoppable.”
Yasmin chose the Muslim artist Fahmida Azim to illustrate the book. It was important to her, she said, after showcasing all the amazing achievements of these women, that it should be a Muslim woman who illustrated them.
“Fahmida was perfect and has done such an amazing job,” she said.
The book also tells the story of Ibtihaj Muhammad, the American who took up fencing and brought home a bronze medal from the 2016 Olympic Games. It was the first time that a woman wearing a hijab had represented the US.
The battle of Dubai weightlifter Amna Al Haddad is featured, recounting how a walk in the city’s Safa Park to help overcome depression inspired a love for fitness that led to her being selected to represent the UAE at the Olympics. It was this journey that prompted the sporting specialist Nike to develop the first athletics hijab.
“I wish I’d had this book when I was a kid,” Yasmin says.
“They are all inspiring women. I just hope it inspires other women so they know they can achieve anything.”
* Muslim Women Are Everything: Stereotype-Shattering Stories of Courage, Inspiration, and Adventure (Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers), written by Seema Yasmin and illustrated by Fahmida Azim, is out now.