Flat Pack Sexism: Ikea removes women from its Arabian catalog and ignites a firestorm of criticism

4 years ago

We cannot begin to lecture across international borders and thus help our global sisters living in regimes such as Saudia Arabia, until we ourselves practice what we preach.


In a country where women can’t even be seen in public without a male escort and the required head-to-toe covering it logically follows that they would not be seen in advertisements, pictured in catalogs or on the front of magazines. It would make equal sense that, if you were doing business in that country, you would play to this culture. After all, business is business… right?

Ikea’s new catalog skillfully airbrushed out or completely omitted any pictures of women in its Saudi version. Cue media feeding frenzy as Ikea and even the Swedish government itself, attempt to dig themselves out of the tsunami of criticism.

“[We] regret what has happened and understand that people are upset.”


However, just for a minute, to play devils advocate, is this really such a big deal?

“We’re beyond that right now in Saudi Arabia. With Internet and satellite TV, there’s really no such thing anymore as blacking out women or airbrushing out women. I would be upset if something like Google was doing it, but for IKEA to do it, that’s just marketing — it’s not such a big deal.”

Eman Al Nafjan, writer and blogger who tweets as Saudiwoman, quoted on CNN.com

In what we consider to be ‘civilized society’ something like this would NEVER happen. Instead, we take our women, strip them until they are semi or totally naked, digitally manipulate their features and drape them decoratively over what ever product we are trying to sell … As Eman just said ‘that’s just marketing’.

In reality, neither end of the spectrum is healthy. Hiding your women from view and restricting them from public life is clearly oppressive in the extreme and damaging to society. Objectifying women’s bodies and using that as a marketing tool is also pretty oppressive and damaging to society.

There is a middle ground but its not defined by what Ikea puts in their catalogs. Its a little more ‘girl-power’ than that.

Women across the world reflect their identities in what they wear and how they step out of their house. It takes only a short trip around the web to find women who feel that clothing like the hijab is actually liberating for them. There are millions of Orthodox Jewish women who celebrate a dress code called ‘tznuis’. Living in a multi-cultural city like Toronto I see women originally from Africa on their way to church who look like royalty in their bright matching headscarfs and dresses.

How we present ourselves to the world has to come from us. It must be an external reflection of our intrinsic identities. Business is business but instead of being a marketing ‘tool’ we can turn ourselves into the demographic to be marketed ‘to’.

‘Western’ and Saudi women face a philosophically similar struggle. We need to be seen. We need to be seen for WHO we are not WHAT we are. Turning a woman into a marketing tool is comparable to airbrushing her out completely. However, there is a major difference. Your average European or North American woman has a wide range of choice when presenting her public face to the world. Its time to take control of that image back, for we cannot begin to lecture across international borders and thus help our global sisters living in regimes such as Saudia Arabia, until we ourselves practice what we preach.

Tomorrow, before you leave the house, take an extended look in the mirror and make sure that you can see YOU. Women should not be a reflection of a powerful society. Society should be a reflection of powerful women.

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