Swedish furniture retailer IKEA is known for its uniformity across the world. But one nation is noting a stark difference between its IKEA ads and the ones seen in the other 37 countries that have IKEA stores: where are the women? The home goods company is taking heat for Photoshopping, airbrushing out, and otherwise erasing photos of women from the Saudi Arabian version of their advertising catalog. In a comparison of two identical photos, the Monday morning’s edition of the free Swedish newspaper Metro revealed how the organization had airbrushed out the mother in a family bathroom scene. In the Swedish version of the free glossy catalog, a bathroom scene shows a mother and father getting their two young children washed up. In the Saudi version, the scene is the same, but the mother has been visibly removed.
Saudi Arabia is dominated by strict Muslim laws, where women are forbidden to travel, study, or even open a bank account without permission from their male “guardian.” The Metro report has raised similar questions regarding IKEA’s policies towards women and gender equality. Sweden’s trade minister Ewa Bjorling didn’t criticize the organization directly but did comment scathingly in the morning newspaper, explaining that we cannot delete women from society.
An IKEA spokesperson said IKEA Saudi Arabia is run by an external franchisee who created the catalog. The company released 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.” The IKEA foundation, the philanthropic side of the company, says it places particular focus on its partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to empower women in India. But the conspicuously missing women in the company’s Saudi catalog are hardly helping to advance such ideals.