People in the U.S. and 41 other countries around the globe scour IKEA catalogs to find the exact same cheap, simple furniture with hard-to-pronounce Swedish names, but the company's Saudi Arabian customers have a different shopping experience: there are no women to be found amongst the images of Grundtal shelves and Smadal desks.
IKEA has admitted to printing different catalogs in Saudi Arabia because the franchise that publishes the catalog in the Islamic Kingdom is uncomfortable with the way women are displayed throughout the pages. Oh. Are the women clad in lingerie and doing strip-pole dances on Signum shoe organizers? Hardly. Flip through the slideshow above and you'll see a woman having dinner with her husband at home replaced by a totally empty table (no family at all > ladies, it seems), as well as a woman brushing her teeth in her pajamas Photoshopped out while the rest of her family remains in the bathroom. Even photos of women in which you can barely see any womanly attributes or, hell, faces — a few blurry strands of red hair behind a newspaper, the back of a woman reading a book by a lake — were apparently deemed too risque by the publisher's standards. In one photo (not pictured here), even an IKEA designer was Photoshopped out, while the other three male designers remained.
IKEA apologized in a statement, saying "We should have reacted and realized that excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalogue is in conflict with the IKEA Group values." Is it, though? IKEA's done it before: in the early 90s, they Photoshopped a woman wearing pants and a long skirt — usually suitable attire for the country — out of a catalog because she was reading a book while lying down on a sofa and therefore seemed lazy. A translator told Metro that only women doing chores were allowed in that catalog — anything else was a no-go.
IKEA isn't the only company that's kowtowed to Saudi Arabia's strict, sexist desires; according to the AP, "when Starbucks opened its coffee shops in the conservative, Muslim kingdom, it removed the alluring, long-haired woman from its logo, keeping only her crown." Women rarely appear in Saudi advertising, unless they're wearing long dresses, sleeves, and scarves. Body parts including the arms, legs, and chest are often censored out of imported magazines.
And it's not just Saudi Arabia. Advertisers in Israel don't put women on billboards for fear they'll be defaced, according to the Guardian. "We have learned that an ad campaign in Jerusalem … that includes pictures of women will remain up for hours at best, and in other cases, will lead to the vandalisation and torching of buses," an advertising agency employee told Israel Army Radio. The New Israel Fund's Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg called it a "snowball effect": if advertisers delete women from photos, they enforce the idea that women must be covered up outside the home. Or, in the case of the IKEA catalog, inside the home, too.
"We are now reviewing our routines to safeguard a correct content presentation from a values point-of-view in the different versions of the IKEA Catalogue worldwide," IKEA said in its statement. Does the company's apology and avowal mean that more international companies will refrain from advertising in countries that refuse to admit that women have just as much of a right to sit at dinner tables and brush their teeth as do men and children? Will Saudi Arabia ever accept a revised IKEA catalog?
"Advertisers are caving in to the demands of extremist ultra-orthodox groups," said an NIF email quoted by the Guardian. "...When the advertisers eliminate images of women, they reinforce a world view in which women must be hidden, where women can't have any meaningful role outside of the home. That's what happens when religious extremism overwhelms basic freedoms." If more companies follow IKEA's lead, they could stop the snowball effect that Furstenburg laments. But, for now, the Saudi Arabia IKEA catalog is still available online for your perusal — without any feminine touches.