Book Review: Borders and Boundaries: How Women Experienced the Partition of India (2000) By Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin

Book Review by Anita Botello

On June 3, 1947, the Partition of India announced by the Hindustan-Pakistan Plan effectively created Pakistan by dividing provinces in India along religious-based borders.[1] The Muslim-majority provinces, which had been part of India became West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and regions of Punjab with a Hindu majority remained in India. As soon as lines were drawn, or even sooner, mass exoduses began on both sides as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were pushed to their new homes. Those reluctant to leave their communities were forced out by the violence that broke out at the beginning of partition. Rita Menon and Kamla Bhasin study the violence that defined the female experience during Partition and the post-Partition years in their book Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. Through their research, they seek to present an alternative view of Partition aside from the countless political histories that exist. To do this they rely of oral accounts of women that fell victim to the violence that overtook regions of India and Pakistan and expose the “tangled relationships between women, religious communities and the state.”[2] The female body become a site on which male honor was disputed and the state negotiated citizenship and borders.
Religious tensions in regions of India among Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs began long before 1947, but the official declaration of Partition escalated the public violence against women. Sexual violence among these three communities included “stripping, parading naked, amputating breast, rape, and the killing fetuses.”[3] Menon and Bhasin argue that the overwhelming displays of sexual violence against women brought about feelings of shame and dishonor for both the family and the community as a whole. Taran, a Sikh woman, shares her story with Menon and Bhasin, stating that when faced with an imminent attack by a mob, her family along with others in her community discussed gathering the young girls in a room and setting it on fire to prevent them from falling into the hands of Muslim men. Stories like Taran’s were devastatingly common; some involved women forced to take poison, others hung themselves and some jumped off buildings. Acts of sexual violence on the female body by opposing communities were considered a sort pollution of the family. The researchers do not shy away from presenting readers with gruesome realities women faced. By showing them, they seek to engage the reader in the realties that marked female bodies in India and the national struggle that dominated that experience.

The process of recovering female refugees in both India and Pakistan was dictated by political debates about citizenship and responsibilities. Both governments established laws to recover abducted women and return them to their families and communities. The researchers rely on the account of a social worker, Kamlaben Patel, who was charged with the responsibility of returning Hindu and Sikh women to their families. With Patel’s account, Menon and Bhasin address the debate that emerged as social workers encountered women in Pakistan that did not want to return to India. Some women had married Muslim men and had children, but Indian abduction laws recognized them as citizens of India and demanded that they be returned to their families. They were considered daughters of India and the state considered it its duty to protect them as such, but what was the citizenship status of their children? Menon and Bhasin address this question through Patel, who states that initially the nations refused to allow women to cross borders with their children. Eventually, as Patel explains, these laws would change, but citizenship continued to be a topic of debate among abducted women.

Firsthand accounts provide Menon and Bhasin critical information necessary to study Partition in India from a feminist historical angle, but relying on oral histories can prove to be problematic. Menon and Bhasin address early on in their work, issues of memory and the interviewer-interviewee dynamic in oral histories. The relationship between a researcher and the subject is especially problematic because, as they point out, inequality exists; the subjects provide their narrative based on personal memories to be interpreted and used by the researcher. It is Menon and Bhasin’s responsibility to maintain “accuracy and fidelity to the letter and spirit of the narratives” that women share with them. [4] One way they accomplish this is by allowing the words of the women to stand alone, offering context and analysis in the beginning and end of each section, but ultimately allowing narratives to speak from themselves. They allow the reader to form a human connection with the histories of the women by transcribing interviews with little editing, which allows for the subjects voice to be imagined. While historians often promote a detachment from research, Menon and Bhasin present their bias early on by addressing their family ties. The narratives mean something to them not only as scholars, but also as women growing up in a post-partition India.

Scholar-activist and oral historian Maylei Blackwell uses the term “retrofitted memory” to describe a “form of countermemory that’s uses fragments of older histories” to uncover historical narrative that have been disappeared or lost.[5 In essence Menon and Bhasin’s collection of oral narratives is a form of retrofitted memory because it challenges the established history that exists on the Partition of India to uncover the gendered violence that took place during this time. While Menon and Bhasin explore uncharted waters, their work focuses mainly on the Indian experience with less emphasis on Muslim women in Pakistan. How did Muslim communities reconcile with the violence they experienced? What happened to those children born from sectarian violence? Oral narratives allow for the opportunity to continue exploring critical moments in history that defined individuals and communities.

[1] Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. New Brunswick (N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998) 33.Bottom of Form

[2] Ibid, 20.

[3] Ibid, 43.

[4] Ibid, 15.

[5] Maylei Blackwell, Chicana Power: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011) 2.

An Interview with Shirley Stewart MA ’10

Shirley Stewart is an alumnae of the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College, and the author of The World of Stephanie St. Clair: An Entrepreneur, Race Woman and Outlaw in Early Twentieth Century Harlem. She will be coming to Sarah Lawrence on December 3rd at 5:30 in Heimbold 208. Here is a sneak peek at her research process and advice for those interested in writing History.


  1. How did you come to choose Stephanie St. Clair as the subject of your book?

The choice was a no-brainer. I mean it was just so obvious to me. On a shallow level, she was a beautiful and a professionally-successful woman in a time when most black women were not considered beautiful and success was hard to come by for anyone. Early on though I realized that there was so much more to St. Clair, so I was hooked on her story.

  1. What was your process for locating primary documents about the life of Stephanie St. Clair? What was your biggest challenge in locating primary documents, and how did you address that challenge?

The process was haphazard in the beginning. There was no road map (no autobiography or biography), and the sparse information I did find was wrong and continues to be perpetuated to this day (I think because that information is sexier than the truth). Anyway, I had to find a starting point that I could prove was factually correct in the form of a primary document. I then researched backwards from that point and moved forward locating more and more primary documents as I unearthed more information about her. The documents were all dated so that helped a great deal in creating a timeline of her life.

  1. What was one of the most interesting experiences/finds you had while researching Stephanie St. Clair?

I was fascinated with how invested Harlem residents were in their community. Socially and economically it was a diverse place with the tension that can entail. That same diversity, however, also allowed for Harlem’s vibrancy. In New York there is currently a discourse about gentrification. The idea that one group could displace a less economically viable group just did not happen during that era. Elite and middle-class blacks moved from other areas in Manhattan and Brooklyn to Harlem without a substantial displacement of the working-class or poor.

  1. What do you feel you gained from the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence that most shaped the professional path you chose after graduation?

The Women’s History Program confirmed what I suspected all along—that history is not static. As I began the program someone (a highly-intelligent someone at that) said to me, “all the important history has been done already.” She was, of course, referring to all the “facts” found in all those texts found in the countless primary, intermediate and high schools across the country. However, documents are being unearthed every day and with digitization we can now cross-reference a wide range of people who experienced the same event. We can now have a more dynamic, nuanced and democratic view of a historical fact. Stephanie St. Clair was a perfect example of a woman who lived through some of the most important events in America’s history, and we have her actions and reactions to those events.

  1. What advice do you have for Women’s Historians that would like to turn their thesis work or budding research project into a book someday?

Instead of thinking of your thesis as a requirement for graduation, think in the long term. Find a thesis topic that will keep you engaged for at least three years. If the subject is not interesting to you, I guarantee that you will put all that hard work in a desk drawer and never look at it again. To complicate matters, life won’t stop because you are working on a book so plan to make choices so that the disparate pieces of your world become a more workable mess. Finally, understand that writing is a solitary process and it is possible that the only one who will see the value of your work in the beginning is you. Some of your friends and loved ones won’t understand your decision to spend an evening writing over other activities. Having said all that, I would not change a thing. The feeling of accomplishment is amazing.

Book Review: Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (2001) By Mary Renda

Book Review by Hank Broege

“The American Africa”

In the land of sloth and vice
Where they never heard of ice
Where the donkeys and women work all day
Where the land is full of ants
And the men don’t wear their pants
It is here the soldier sings his evening lay.
Underneath the boiling sun
Let them have their Benet gun
And return us to our beloved homes.[1]

This song, constructed and sung by U.S. Marines during their nineteen-year occupation of Haiti, bears a striking resemblance to The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen Anthem, but unlike the Yaksmen described in the anthem, Haiti is real, yet seldom depicted as such, and thus more often depicted as an exotic African fantasy held within a predominantly white U.S. imagination. Due to the significance of Haiti’s Orientalization by U.S. discourse, I decided to title this book review of Taking Haiti after what the evangelical missionary Wilhelm Jordan described as an “American Africa.'”[2]
Taking Haiti: Military Occupation & the Culture of U.S. Imperialism
, 1915-1940, by Mary Renda, is a colorful and engaging work of historical scholarship comprised of hundreds of sources that Renda uses to articulate the U.S. discourse of Haiti in journals, letters, pulp fiction novels, theatre, and tourism. She discusses the discourse coming from the U.S. government, especially the Wilson Administration, who commissioned the invasion of Haiti in 1915. Renda even discussed a few of the most prominent writers of the 20th century, including Eugene O’Neill, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston and how they depicted Haiti in their literature. However, the primary focus of analysis for Renda are the U.S. Marines, whom Renda sees as an essential vehicle for U.S. discourse on racism, exoticism, gender, sexuality, phycology, imperialism and most importantly, paternalism, which is used so frequently as a framework for examining political and social relations that it at times teeters on the brink of repetitiveness.

It’s difficult to quibble even in that regard, however, because the paternalist framework existed so firmly on several levels. Woodrow Wilson, as president of the U.S., viewed Haitians as rotten little boy in need of severe punishment.[3] Major general Smedley Butler, AKA “The Fighting Quaker,” who headed the Haitian gendarmerie, who he referred to as his “little chocolate soldiers.” Coincidentally, Butler had three little children of his own whom he viewed in a similar light to his “little fellows” on Haiti: Smedley Jr., Tom Dick, and a daughter nicknamed “Snooks.”[4] The Marines themselves of course viewed the Haitians as children, including Faustin Wirkus, who saw himself and other Marines as “trustees of a huge estate that belonged to minors.”[5]

Nevertheless, this would not prevent Marines from indiscriminately killing Haitians who they suspected of being Caco rebels, overseeing Haitians being literally worked to death on cotton plantations, and the rape and killing of nine prepubescent girls in one night.[6] Since they were white Marines in Haiti, any wrongdoing would be attributed to their circumstances and not to their actions, so they were all let off the hook. At worst, they would be sent back to a mental hospital in the U.S., like sergeant Ivan Virski was after his drunken shooting rampage. According to Renda, this behavior stemmed from exposure to a range of discourse on race, gender, and nation before they even landed on Haiti.

While some Marines were born in the U.S., some were immigrants, nor were all the Marines criminals. Nevertheless, nearly all of the Marines shared a sense of racial nationalism and superiority, which was yet another paternalist framework. Furthermore, the marines also had a shared ignorance for Haiti’s history; a history that up until the 1930s, thanks to the promotional work of black pride, black nationalist, and far left organizations, as well as literature published by Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes, had been deliberately omitted by U.S., French, and other Western discourse.

While aboard their ships to Haiti, the only literature on Haiti the Marines could get their hands on was on voodoo, and how Haitians used that to poison their enemies. [7] They even tested what they had learned on the subject by making a Haitian drink an entire bucket of water, and then waited for him to die, which he did not.[8] Therefore, prior to the U.S. occupation of Haiti, the Marines did not read about the thirteen-year Haitian Revolution that concluded in 1804 with the expulsion of French colonialists, and the establishment of the second independent republic in the western hemisphere. They did not read about how American merchants supported the Haitian, which Thomas Jefferson approved of, but could not recognize the Republic of Haiti because of the institution of slavery in the Southern U.S., and the U.S. relationship with France. The Republic of Haiti would not be recognized until the U.S. Civil War was underway. They also did not read about the thousands African Americans who immigrated to Haiti in the 1920s to escape racism and enslavement. Lastly, they did not read about the enormous debt that the French saddled Haiti with for ‘stealing’ their colony, which Haiti could not seem to recover from, especially after the U.S. took control of Haiti’s national bank and its debt in 1910, and then invaded five years later, swiftly dismantling Haiti’s political system (which has yet to be restored), and installed a puppet political system to serve U.S. imperial and neocolonial interests.


[1] Mary Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001) 233.

[2] Ibid, 303.

[3] Ibid, 100.

[4] Ibid, 102.

[5] Ibid, 13.

[6] Ibid, 163.

[7] Ibid, 71.

[8] Ibid, 79.