The Swedish Metro newspaper reported today that expendable furniture behemoth Ikea had Photoshopped its Saudi Arabian catalogues to completely exclude women from the pages. Scenes that included a mother, a father, and a child in other catalogues, for instance, had been touched up to be just a father and a kid. Other settings eliminated people altogether rather than include a woman in the image. Naturally, many people were furious about the perceived misogyny, especially when Ikea, through its charitable donations, attempts to put on a very pro-woman stance.
In a statement released this afternoon, Ikea apologized for removing the female models, adding that the women's images "could very well have been included in the Saudi Arabian catalogue." The company then noted that it was their decision, not that of their Arab franchisee, to cut out the women. "We will naturally review our routines and working process, to ensure that this will not happen again," read the statement.
To most people in the West, Ikea Photoshopping women out of its catalogues seems insane. Why would anyone do that, let alone a multinational, multibillion-dollar chain like Ikea? But to anyone who's lived in Saudi Arabia—like me—removing the women from the catalogues before they arrived in Kingdom might have actually been preferable to the alternative.
Here are several examples of what frequently happens to foreign depictions of women in Saudi, courtesy of the mutaween, the religious police force charged with protecting the nation's virtue:
A Katy Perry album is scrawled over in pen to add modest new clothing to the singer's arms and legs [Images via Susie of Arabia]
A maternity support belt was also deemed too risqué, but this image was just hastily scribbled on [Image via Susie of Arabia]
The woman playing with her fake family on a kiddie pool box was scratched out here [Image via Images of Saudi]
Here, for Arab versions of Spanx, some censors felt it necessary to scratch out faces and the limbs while others only focused on the bodies [Image via Images of Saudi]
And if you thought the censorship in the Ikea catalogue was offensive, consider these images hanging in Ikea's Riyadh location [Images via Images of Saudi]
So serious is Saudi Arabia about keeping bare women out of its advertising and off of its product packaging that the Saudi government made Starbucks design a new, mermaid-free logo for its Saudi locations. Later, when I lived in Saudi in 2008, some magazines had entire pages ripped out of them, a sign that the mutaween had deemed them too much of a hassle to color over.
All this in mind, it's a little easier to understand why a company like Ikea might want to totally avoid the scribbling wrath of the religious police by simply not including women in its catalogue. That's not to say that Photoshopping women out of things is right, but in Saudi the women in brochures are going to be written over, pixelated out, or torn away in many cases regardless. If one of your company's goals is to not be even the least bit complicit in subjugating women, the best practice is probably to not venture into Saudi Arabia in the first place.