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Q&A: mother and daughter Yasmin Halima and Seema Yasmin

Courtesy of Seema Yasmin and Yasmin Halima

Yasmin Halima is a current Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI) fellow who has led HIV prevention programs and women’s health initiatives at a number of organizations. She was born in India and moved to England at age six. Her daughter, Dr. Seema Yasmin, teaches science journalism at Stanford. Yasmin was a 2017-18 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow and serves as director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative.

Both mother and daughter moved to the U.S. from Britain to pursue educational and career opportunities. They recently co-founded the Yasmin Leadership Academy, an organization that provides career coaching and scholarships to young women.

In conversation with The Daily, they discussed health policy, intergenerational learning and empowering women.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Your first name [Yasmin Halima] is your last name [Seema Yasmin]. Is that a coincidence?

Seema Yasmin (SY): No, there’s a story. When I was 17, [being] a feminist, I decided I didn’t want my dad’s name attached with mine anymore. At the same time, Mum, who had been divorced for about 12 years, was finally doing the thing when you go to the lawyer and have your name changed. She didn’t want to go back to her maiden name, so [her family members] suggested to her that under Islamic law, one option is to take your mother’s name as your last name. She took her grandmother’s name as her last name instead. I went along with her to the lawyer’s office and was like, “Surprise!” I had done the paperwork too. So then I changed my name to Seema Yasmin.

Yasmin Halima (YH): And the bit that Seema didn’t tell you is that as we were walking in, she said, “One day I’m going to be Dr. Yasmin.” It was a big deal for us both to be named after women.

TSD (to YH): Why did you decide to do the DCI program?

YH: I was at a transition point in my life. I came to visit Seema when she was a Knight fellow and saw her thriving. I fell in love with Stanford, and quite by accident, through Seema, I came to learn of DCI. It was a moment in my life where I needed to consolidate and reflect, but also I had so much I wanted to do.

If you look at my career, a lot of what I’ve done is women and health, women and HIV [and] protecting women from violence. But what I really wanted to do was women. I wanted to focus on women’s voices as a conduit to women’s agency and women’s decision-making. Coming here helped me dig deeper and think more deeply about those issues.

Now I’m doing a lot of work around women’s voices and women’s leadership through coaching. Seema and I just pitched to the d.School a course called “Design Your Voice.” We’re looking to co-teach.

TSD (to SY): You’re a medical doctor, but then you worked in public health and later got a journalism degree. What prompted the transition?

SY: I got my medical degree, then I worked as a doctor, then I had another transition where I came to the U.S. to work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an officer at the Epidemic Intelligence Service.

I was thinking a lot about living a life of impact. I was always really interested in the root causes of illness, like nutrition, housing [and] environmental pollution. And someone said to me, “You’d be really interested in public health.” So that’s when I applied to join the Epidemic Intelligence Service and came to the U.S. in 2011.

I did that for a few years, and then I had an “aha” moment one time when I was investigating an outbreak of flesh-eating bacteria in the Navajo Nation. I was going door to door trying to track how the outbreak was spreading and who was sick. And I knocked on this one door and a woman opened the door and said, “What can I do to keep my kids safe?” I said, “That’s the easy part. While the outbreak is spreading make sure you and your kids wash your hands very frequently.” And she said, “With what water?” There wasn’t running water on the reservation.

That was my “I need to do journalism” moment. I felt like journalism was the way to share these stories and to shift public policy.

TSD: You both do work that involves health and communication. Are you each inspired by the other’s work?

SY: Definitely. And I think with you [to her mother], I’m really inspired by your bravery that’s led you here. Mum had an arranged marriage at the age of 17, and then had me when she was very young. She had to make a really big leap away from all that she knew and all that was destined for her to say, “Screw this. I’m going to university with my five-year-old child in tow.”

That’s what she did and was disowned for a while from the family. I’m more inspired by that than by any other individual things or individual subjects.

TSD: You went to your mom’s university classes?

SY: Oh yeah, I was five and precocious. She was studying education.

YH: At the end of every seminar, the professor loved Seema and would say, “Seema, would you like to add anything?” And she always did.

YH: Every time I walk onto Stanford’s campus I think, “Wow, this is where I am,” and I think of all the things that brought me here. But when I walked on with Seema, we just had to look at each other because I knew that somebody understood what that meant. That was a very powerful moment.

TSD: How does gender inform the work you’d like to do going forward and your vision for your new leadership academy?

YH: It very much is informed by everything that we have experienced. I had to read surreptitiously as a teenager because it wasn’t encouraged. And then not having a voice, not being able to make choices.

I remember walking in one day to the office and Seema was on every TV screen [as a CNN reporter]. I remember thinking, “My daughter has a voice.”

We were already informally mentoring young women. We decided we wanted to do it a little bit more formally, and Stanford just seems like a good place from which to develop and launch the platforms. That’s where my coaching practices come from and that’s where our teaching is going to grow from.

SY: I started scholarships last year to support women writers and women artists. I want other women to feel like, “Yes, there’s space for me, and there’s someone encouraging me to write.” That’s part of the leadership academy too.

YH: The focus is on women who’ve had challenging journeys, whether it’s race or educational differences or class or socioeconomics. Most of the coaching that I do at the moment is with women of color.

SY: We’re up against so much that we need each other. For me it’s not sufficient to be successful on my own. It’s not sufficient to get book deals and come to Stanford and have a great position here. If I’m not bringing others with me there’s no point to my isolated success.

 

Contact Jasmine Kerber at jkerber ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

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