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.

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