Composite image of Dr. Seema Yasmin and the cover of Unbecoming
(Lucas Passmore/Simon & Schuster)

Dr. Yasmin Opens Up on Her Debut YA Novel Tackling Abortion, Pre-Release Book Ban Attempts

Even before its release, Dr. Seema Yasmin’s new book, Unbecoming, faced book ban challenges. Given the book’s relevance at a time of rising Islamophobia and restrictions to abortion, it’s not surprising that it has stirred fear among the leaders of the book-banning movement.

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As book-banning efforts sweep the country, the right-wing politicians and parents behind the movement often target books that deal with topics that don’t align with the conservative agenda or that give young readers necessary resources for navigating things like sex, pregnancy, and sexual identity. Hence, books like Unbecoming are becoming all the more important as the books young readers have access to are restricted.

Unbecoming, which will hit shelves on July 9, follows the story of best friends Laylah and Noor, two Muslim teenagers and best friends who respond to Texas’ stringent anti-abortion laws by creating an illegal guide to abortion. Their pamphlet will help women navigate the network of underground abortion clinics safely and help them avoid potential traps. However, the guide becomes a reality for Laylah when she discovers she is pregnant. Afraid that her Muslim family and peers won’t accept her, she tries to deal with the pregnancy secretly, while Noor begins probing the role of politicians and mosques in the state’s anti-abortion legislation and underground abortion clinic network.

Recently, Dr. Yasmin sat down with The Mary Sue over video chat to discuss the challenges to Unbecoming and the book’s significance.

Dr. Seema Yasmin discusses book banning from an author’s perspective

Dr. Yasmin’s PR company, Books Forward, revealed that Unbecoming was challenged before its release, with stores like Target and Walmart allegedly refusing to sell the book. While Dr. Yasmin wasn’t aware of the specific details on the publishing side, she did describe what book banning is like from the author’s perspective. She explained, “In a way, news about certain stores not carrying books is not surprising. Not to say that it’s not terrible. But we are facing escalating book bans and worsening censorship. So when people say to me, I couldn’t find your book in this store or on the store’s website, it’s not entirely surprising that folks don’t want people to read stories about girls and women and access to health care, access to reproductive care.”

Additionally, she has experienced educators and teachers reaching out to her about how they cannot order her books due to book-banning laws in many conservative states that criminalize librarians and teachers for providing children with access to books. Dr. Seema recounted, “I do have a book coming out this month called The ABCs of Queer History, which is a children’s picture book for ages four, five, and up. And I’ve had librarians and teachers across the U.S. reach out to me to say they’d really like this book on the shelves. They think it’s really important for their students and their kids to feel represented in books, but that they won’t be ordering it or feel like they can’t order it because of laws in their state that are very prohibitive in terms of what kids can read.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Seema knows exactly why books like Unbecoming are likely to be challenged. She explained that it all comes down to fear. Books that encourage empathy and give readers hope threaten the people whose power and control rely on diminishing hope and keeping things as they are. She explained,

Books that challenge widely held narratives and that counter rigid worldviews can be scary to people in power at times. It’s why we see book bans, and it’s why we see, especially in the face of progress, that there’s fear around literature being an engine of empathy. We read books to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to embody their experience, and to have a peek into someone else’s life. I think what literature can do powerfully is ignite the imagination to think about what a different world could look like. I think literature can powerfully encourage imagination around a different route to the future, a different path to equality, for example. That’s really empowering. It’s why even the dystopias, you keep going back to them because there’s hope in them, and there’s detail and color around how a different future is possible. I think that’s beautiful, and it’s scary to those who need to maintain the status quo in order to sustain their power.

How Unbecoming challenges the status quo

As a book that deconstructs negative Muslim stereotypes and advocates for women’s reproductive rights, Unbecoming very much challenges the status quo. One misconception it tackles is that Islam is inherently anti-abortion. In reality, abortion is actually more permissible under Islamic law than it is in several U.S. states. Dr. Seema told us,

My understanding has been that abortion is permissible in many situations in Islam, to the point that it’s more available under Islamic law than it is in some states in the US. So, this idea that Islam is only misogynistic or backward, the book challenges that narrative. There are these contradictions that exist in faith, in communities, and the world. There’s a really good New Yorker documentary, a short doc I saw at Sundance last year, which is about these rabbis and imams that have gotten together to say that the US law, as it stands on abortion, curtails Jewish peoples’ and Muslim peoples’ ability to practice their faith fully because of the abortion restriction because those religions allow abortion in many more circumstances compared to US law. They are using a law, the acronym is RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act). It’s a really interesting twist and use of the law. I find that fascinating. But that might challenge someone’s idea of, ‘Oh, aren’t Muslims backward? And isn’t abortion just fully banned in a patriarchal religion?’ And it’s more nuanced than that.

Another misconception Unbecoming tackles is the belief many women and girls hold that they must be perfect to find acceptance in society, families, and friendships. Although the title partially reflects the main character’s desire to “unbecome” pregnant, Dr. Yasmin revealed it also demonstrates how she “unbecomes” the self-critical version of herself and learns to accept being her whole, messy self. She said,

[Laylah’s] journey through the book is really her unbecoming this rigid version of herself that she’s constructed. So Laylah has fallen into the trap of an illusion of control if she can be ‘perfect.’ If she can be ‘perfect,’ then she can control the way that she is perceived, and then people will love this version of her, all the while not realizing that she’s as messy as the rest of us and the people close to her can see through the facade of perfection. They can see the messiness and love her because of it, not in spite of it. There’s a journey of self-realisation that happens for Laylah, that you have to show up as your full messy self in friendships, familial relationships, and in the community. I’ve seen a lot of girls and women go through this idea of, I’m going to be so in control, and I’m going to have all my s**t together, and then I’m this lovable version of myself. It’s like, no, you’re lovable regardless of that.

Ultimately, Dr. Seema wants those reading Unbecoming to challenge certain views. She wants them to challenge the idea that Islam is monolithic and to realize it’s made up of a whole community of 1.8 billion people who can’t all be lumped together into a stereotype. Additionally, she hopes the book raises awareness for book banning. She hopes readers will “ask those questions about why [book banning] is happening and why it is happening at this moment? Why might this book not be available everywhere? Who might be threatened by the existence of a book like this, and why might that be?”

Unbecoming is available for pre-order now.

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Rachel Ulatowski
Rachel Ulatowski is a Staff Writer for The Mary Sue, who frequently covers DC, Marvel, Star Wars, literature, and celebrity news. She has over three years of experience in the digital media and entertainment industry, and her works can also be found on Screen Rant, JustWatch, and Tell-Tale TV. She enjoys running, reading, snarking on YouTube personalities, and working on her future novel when she's not writing professionally. You can find more of her writing on Twitter at @RachelUlatowski.