“Jam is for Girls, Girls Get Jam” by Shagufta Iqbal is art

Described as an “elite performer”, Shagufta Iqbal is a spoken word artist, poet, filmmaker and writer whose talents resonate through her debut collection Jam is for girls, girls get Jam (2017).

The book is an honest and moving insight into the immigrant experience and gives voice to women’s journeys into uncharted territory.

The poems are concerned with the tenderness of identity and Shagufta weaves together themes of gender inequality, politics, racism and injustice.

The details, intricate imagery and fragility the poet is able to paint are tricky for the reader but remain unapologetic.

Likewise, Jam is for girls, girls get Jam deviates from the normal clash of cultures that can become a repetitive theme among British Asian poets.

Instead, it’s “the confirmation of the identity of the third generation carving out a place for itself in an increasingly Islamophobic world.”

So we dig deeper into the collection, discuss some of the main points, and highlight why this is a must-read story for South Asians and society at large.

here to stay

Perhaps one of the book’s most recurring themes is overcoming racism and discrimination, especially when trying to cement your place in a new society.

Shagufta Iqbal writes about her parents’ transition from India to Bristol, but also about her struggles trying to exist as a brunette woman.

Referring to multicultural communities and racist interactions, some of the poems have such vivid imagery that it’s hard not to feel the emotion of the words.

For example, in “Stop and Search”, Shagufta references the hatred towards black communities and the fear she and her family felt during this time.

However, the poem shows again how the community has been able to keep its head down and face these experiences:

“It wasn’t so much our problem at the time,
that daily hatred and discrimination
which was so rooted in the impoverished Britain of Thatcher.
We were just Pakis then,
let’s keep our heads down,
did our job,
and I came out when the time was right.

This theme returns in “Stokes Croft” where Shagufta struggles with cultural appropriation and the meaning behind it.

There is a fragile battle the poet is fighting where she feels her place in British society is simply to exist.

However, especially at such a young age when Shagufta had these experiences, she feels like if that’s her role, then she’ll do it right:

“We are scattered here for decorative purposes only.
No one will reach out with words and start conversations.
Two worlds side by side as in parallel universes.
Yes, like stars light years away.
We are scattered here for decorative purposes only.
So hush, twinkle and look the part.

While it’s quite emotional for a young Shagufta to feel like their family’s existence is so small, there’s an overwhelming essence of empowerment.

She recognizes her surroundings but does not seem to do things by halves.

What’s smart is that she embodies the strength of her elders who made the difficult journey to Britain.

It’s almost like she’s accepting the role she’s playing in the community, but showing signs of moving into a more important part of society.

Femininity

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As Pavan wonderfully put it on Goodreads:

“I would say that this collection is the one that attracted me the most. It’s nice.

“Poetry is meant to touch you deep inside, and it did. I got this shiver down my spine while reading.

“It absolutely nails the immigrant experience and the identity of 2nd/3rd generation women.”

Femininity, empowerment and female experiences are highlighted throughout the book.

However, the poet is not afraid to tackle more pressing issues around gender inequality.

In “Medusa’s Rage,” she describes the sexual freedom women should have and how she’s not afraid to start a “war” to get her message across:

“This is not an invitation for you to violate my personal space,
like an extraordinary pervert.
And I feel that there is violence
in your words, it hangs in the air.
Suffocates me, it’s hard for me to bear.
It makes me want to strike you down where you stand.
Reverse.
make you understand
that if you look at my face, I will turn you to stone.

This power structure is pervasive in Jam is for girls, girls get Jam.

In each poem, whether it’s about women, culture, or history, Shagufta writes with immersive self-confidence.

This same captivating nature is found in the poems where the writer addresses his own community and the issues it raises.

In “Excuse Me, My Brother”, she refers to how some Muslim women are questioned about the extent of their “beliefs”, using the body as a symbol.

But, she reverses that and focuses on men. Asking them provocative questions, Shagufta Iqbal writes:

“And tell me, why is your kuchi on display, brother?
In fact, while I have your attention
and the right to talk about your body,
let me ask you,
how circumcised is your dick bro?

Oh, I’m sorry, do my questions embarrass you?

How does it feel to be told you’re not up to it
to my understanding and my requirements
of what it means to be sufficiently Islamic?

The use of “my brother” is so sarcastic and powerful because it juxtaposes the statements the poet makes.

Yet the usage of the phrase refers to the language that people use in conversation in Muslim communities.

There’s almost a plea from Shagufta for women to be less sexualized and questioned about their faith.

It also brings the cultural view of South Asian women and how they must follow certain guidelines to be “respected”. The poem ends with:

“Listen to my words,
see me beyond the ship
who carries my soul and my spirit.

Balancing faith, expectation and reality is something Shagufta Iqbal deals with uniquely.

The issues themselves are serious, but the tone she uses to bring these issues to the fore can only be described as humorous authority.

Even in ‘Remember, My Daughter’, she talks to herself from her father’s perspective.

This type of conversation is rare between a South Asian father and daughter and speaks to female readers and their self-perception.

Balancing Western standards of beauty, representation and identity, the poem reads:

“So remember when you get stuck
between images of women with golden shimmering hair,
who embody the desire and the ability to obtain,
no, you will not find your identity on this television screen.
But understand where you belong,
not as Miss World or Miss Universe,
but as a woman who owns the world.

The different currents of femininity and culture blend effortlessly within Jam is for girls, girls get Jam.

Shagufta’s ability to speak to women and catalog so many relatable experiences means the collection speaks to such a catalog of women and helps them feel less alone.

historical culture

One of the most important themes of the collection is its emphasis on the history of South Asian culture.

First of all, all the poems are divided into different chapters.

These chapters, except the first one, are titled with the names of famous Asian rivers such as Sutlej River, Jhelum River and Ravi River.

Not only do these allude to the overall concern of these specific poems, but refer to the relevance of each river.

The most poignant display of this literary tool is shown in “Empire” which is found under the River Chenab chapter.

This river runs through India and Pakistan and the poem is an emotional account from 1947 Partition.

Shagufta Iqbal skillfully transforms the historical event into a type of relationship. Not only does this modernize it for young readers, but gives the Score a new perspective:

“I let it go
my face in his hands.
Whisper in my ears.
Let it cut the spiciness out of me.
He slipped from the legacies of my nakedness,
fingers, neck, wrists, ankles exposed.
Put his cock in the floor of me.

This shows how difficult this time has been for many South Asians. How thousands of people have been banished from their homes, stripped of their identity and stripped of their culture.

Shagufta then explains:

“I carried the children he denied.
He drew lines on my body,
broke me to pieces without a nation.

These compelling verses show how historic the score was and how the scars are ubiquitous over 75 years later.

Shagufta surprisingly succeeds in signifying the aftermath of the event but highlights the strength of those who suffered.

Historical culture also refers to the history of skin lightening and beauty standards in South Asian culture.

Describing the day-to-day aspects of her life, Shagufta Iqbal explains in ‘Truth’ how the media plays such an important role in beauty ideals, whether they know it or not.

This not only has a negative effect on a person’s self-esteem, but also on how they think others view them:

“I wrote this poem for every time
I turned the pages of Asiana magazine
and was challenged with skin lightening products.
I wrote this poem for every time I lit
BBC 1Xtra and BBC Asian Network,
and everything was fair-skinned girl and goriya veh.
I wrote this poem when Diya magazine
quietly wrapped up in my home,
my mailbox revealing how indian models,
were replaced by Europeans.

This relentless address of ideologies within South Asian culture and the firing of certain businesses or crowds is what makes this collection a must-read.

The combination of female experiences, history, racism, pain and much more does not overwhelm the reader.

Instead, it ties a thread through all of these themes to highlight how many pressing issues some people have faced.

Likewise, it shows how they all play a part in the South Asian and Asian British experiences.

Shagufta Iqbal is a wonderful poet, whose writing and distinct use of literature changes the way we see ourselves and the world.

Her ability to celebrate but also challenge her own communities is innovative, inspiring and insightful.

Jam is for girls, girls get Jam is a magnificent collection and a must-read for everyone from poetry lovers to beginning readers.

Take a copy of your choice here.

Christopher S. Washington