NPR gives us an Orientalist romance

When I started to read a recent NPR story about an Iraqi woman married to an American sergeant, I had to double check to make sure that I was actually reading a news story and not a piece of Orientalist fiction. “From The Iraq War, A Troubled Romance In America” is filled with so many Orientalist cliches that even a reporter from Fox News would be happy.

The article starts out with the usual physical description of Muslim woman’s dress. “Munira Shahamorad was 20 years old and dressed head to toe in all-concealing black robes when she showed up at the gates of the U.S. Marine base in Fallujah, Iraq, looking for a job.” The imagery of this first sentence sets the tone for the rest of the article. We’re given the stereotypical image of the oppressed Muslim woman who is covered from head to toe and who is begging for help from Whites–the White man’s burden. The U.S. military is already set up as Munira’s savior. This image is complete when we’re told that Munira is running away from her abusive older brother. Thus, another Muslim woman has been saved from a brutish Muslim man by a Western occupying power.

Munira and Steve. Image by Paxton Winters for NPR

Munira and Steve. Image by Paxton Winters for NPR

The Orientalist theme continues throughout the article. Munira finds a job with the military and does not go back to see her family. We’re told that signing on with the military “could have meant a death sentence — probably in the form of an ‘honor killing’ carried out by a male relative.” Munira’s family stereotyped as being oppressive and brutal and Munira herself is stereotyped as a victim.

While at the military base, Munira meets her future husband, Sgt. Steve Campbell. The authors of the story, Ivan Watson and Paxton Winters, move on to Munira and Steve’s life in America. They encounter financial difficulties which forces Munira to work. Since she doesn’t a have a visa and thus cannot legally work, Munira becomes a stripper to help the family make ends meet. Thus, Munira has come full circle from being fully covered from head to toe to stripping in a club. The ultimate Orientalist fantasy of a Muslim woman becoming unveiled and revealing an attractive body for male consumption.

Munira’s story is real and and in some ways tragic (she ends up being kicked out of her home by her husband) and I think it needs to be told. However, I wonder why her story was told in such a sensationalist manner. Her story could have been told without the stereotypes. There was no need to immediately start off with a description her dress or to portray her as a victim. She obviously fought to have a better life in Iraq and the U.S. Why couldn’t this aspect of Munira’s personality be focused on more? I struggled to find any positive in this story and came up woefully short. This is a just another in the many tales of the oppressed Muslim woman yearning for freedom and love.

  • luckyfatima

    Similar stories from the Vietnam era, with different yet still Orientalist sensationalism that caters to US interest because it confirms mainstream US stereotypes. Like why Oliver Stone made the first movie of the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective based on the autobiography of Phung This Le Ly Hayslip. She worked closely on that film with him, but was only a story of interest to the mainstream because of the Orientalist stuff in it. I feel bad for Munira. I can’t believe she ended up stripping. What the heck?

  • annalouise

    If nothing else, couldnt’ this story illustrate the lack of support of veterans and the lack of good job opportunities for recent immigrants?
    Why is a military family experiencing ‘financial difficulties’? (which, if I remember the article correctly are related to his health problems)
    Why doesn’t the wife of a US citizen have a work visa? Why is a woman who is obviously bilingual and college educated working as a stripper at a time when all areas of US society have a great need for skilled translators?
    Is it the well documented lack of mental health support for returning Iraq war veterans a factor in the break-up of their marriage?

    Better questions that would have made a better article. But instead we need to hear about an orientalist fantasy.

  • cmoliver

    I hear what you’re saying.

    The theme I got out of the article was how pathetic it is that we don’t provide for our veterans better. It’s criminal what we pay our soldiers (you can’t even really afford a car and housing in most parts of the country, let alone a family) and then they come back suffering from PTSD and are unable to cope or provide for themselves. Things quickly go downhill. There are a lot of homeless people that are vets – it’s not a coincidence.

    The fact that the woman in the story couldn’t work legally is another tragedy of the way our government treats people. (Though they really could have done without publishing the picture of her as a stripper…that was really uncalled for.)

    This particular bit is really telling:

    “the Campbells had pinned their hopes on finding potentially lucrative work for Shahamorad as an interpreter for the U.S. government or military. They were waiting for the authorities to approve her six-month old application for a work permit.”

    That’s the real tragedy behind the violence and abuse in this story, not her family or background.

  • Fatemeh

    I find this story incredibly disturbing, not only for the reasons that everyone above has described, but because of the reduction of these people’s lives into flippant soundbites.

    I’m disappointed that NPR didn’t address larger issues of class and race where Munira lives (WHY doesn’t anyone know she’s Iraqi?). I’m disappointed Munira’s birth name has been steamrolled over; she has been given the name “Venus” by others? WTH. I’m disappointed that NPR glosses over the difficulties that this couple faced in reuniting (Munira was in Turkey for 9 mos…wth was that about?). I’m disappointed that they didn’t further address the allegations of child abuse–why didn’t we hear Munira’s voice on that?

    The fact that NPR cut out significant difficulties to paint this as a “troubled love story” rather than what it is (a reality for these two people) concerns me. The fact that this woman has been kicked out of her home seems almost an afterthought in this story.

    And of course there is a picture of her in scanty clothing!

  • Jamerican Muslimah

    After listening to the story I feel like I want to throw up. I agree with Fatemeh, it is incredibly disturbing (on so many levels).

  • Mish

    I agree with annalouise. The story has potential to tell Munira’s story, as well as expose and discuss a bunch of other issues. Instead they’ve just turned it into a laundry list of stereotypes.

  • Dawud

    Yes, that’s what I thought immediately when listening. It’s the old motiff of the European coming to save the savage to civilize them. In this case, the story portrays that the savage couldn’t be civilized.

  • tulip

    Sort of off topic, but there was a story a couple years ago on 60 minutes about another american soldier marrying an Iraqi woman he met while stationed in iraq. Just thought you might be interested.

  • Zahra

    Thanks for posting on this. I actually heard this story on NPR as I was getting ready for work, and it made me think of this website. I was hoping you would cover it.

    I heard the description of what she was wearing and thought, Gah! There it is! And while I’m sure the story is true and it’s important to show how limited the options are for people (especially women) without a work visa in the country, the stripper piece disturbed me. Especially coming on the heels of what I read here about Yasmin Fostok. What’s with the obsession about Muslim women strippers? (This is a rhetorical question, btw. I think I’ve figured it out.)

    There has to be a better way to handle that part of the story. What were Munira’s thoughts and feelings about being a stripper? Did she feel it was just a job? Did she find it unpleasant or humiliating? How did people treat her in the club? They could have made her the source, the subject of the story instead of the object.

    I found the part about child abuse really disturbing, and while I understand Munira wasn’t around to comment the 2nd time (and maybe didn’t want to the 1st), I still felt…I don’t know, that something was missing. I think that the general setup of the story, which is about “two cultures colliding through romance,” encourages an American listener to think that this is a cultural difference in child-rearing. As opposed to, I don’t know, talking about how people who suffer abuse often perpetuate it….

    But what really got me was the end (“Munira’s whereabouts are still unknown”), which on the radio came across as that scary Muslim women is still out there somewhere, and still a threat.

    The thing is (and this is why I’m posting), I wouldn’t have been able to articulate any of these dissatisfactions to myself, never mind critique the radio story, if I hadn’t become addicted to this website in the last three months. I’m not Muslim, but this website has done wonder to educate me about things like this, and be able to catch some of them for myself. So thank you for that.

  • RChoudh


    First of all I just want to say how sad this whole story is and that I pray for Munira’s guidance and for her to turn her life around for the sake of herself and her family. That said I think this story should be told to people who abuse their family members (like her brother) that they have to be the first to be blamed if their victim’s life turns out messed up. Also I didn’t like how her husband was made out to be a “victim” in all this because he was just as responsible as she was for making some stupid decisions in life (such as going and having sex even though he was forbidden to by the military). It’s just a very sad story all around and I wonder if NPR will do a follow up to this.