It is not easy being a woman in Saudi Arabia, but times are changing, albeit slowly. The push to allow women to drive has been renewed yet again. More women are slowly entering the workforce. Female Saudi athletes competed in London’s Summer Olympics. And, as is the case with many countries, women make the majority of purchasing decisions for their households. Women’s rights have a ways to go, but they are heading in a more progressive direction.
So why would IKEA, in Saudi Arabia, airbrush women out of its latest catalog?
One would think that IKEA would airbrush its products to make them look as if they would last longer than a year, but instead, women were all completely erased in catalogs available in the three stores the company runs in Saudi Arabia. The massive Photoshop job started from the top, with an image of one of the company’s designers, Clara Gausch, removed from a photograph that showcased her along with three of her colleagues. A photo of women eating with men at a dining table was swapped out for another shot that only featured an empty table. The airbrushed photo most displayed by global media outlets, however, is one where a women in her pajamas was removed along with her reflection in a mirror.
Criticism of IKEA has been harshest in the company’s home country, Sweden. The Stockholm newspaper Metro has particularly savaged the furniture giant, and among its criticisms pointed out that it is not forbidden to depict women in advertising, or print, in Saudi Arabia – whether in or out of traditional local dress. Metro’s editors pointed out that IKEA has self-censored its catalogs distributed in the Middle East for 20 years; during the 1990s, pictures of women completing chores were left in catalogs while one of a women lounging on a couch reading a book was eliminated. In sum, said one Metro writer, IKEA “sucked up to the (Saudi) regime.” Sweden’s minister to the European Union, Birgitta Ohlsson, linked to a news story on Twitter and simply described IKEA’s move as “medieval.”
While IKEA’s corporate headquarters and the local franchisee in Saudi Arabia point fingers at each other, each attempting to lay blame, the company’s communications office has apologized, stating that the Saudi version of its product catalog was out of line with its core values. For a company that has long pledged to empower women across the world, the deletion of women from its marketing materials was an epic embarrassment on many counts.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.
Image courtesy Metro.