IKEA catalog contributes to culture of oppression

IKEA catalog contributes to culture of oppression (credit: Josh Smith/Forum Editor) IKEA catalog contributes to culture of oppression (credit: Josh Smith/Forum Editor)
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

This summer, Sarah Attar became the first Saudi Arabian woman to participate in the Olympic games. The BBC reported that in 2015, Saudi Arabian women will be allowed to vote in municipal elections for the first time.

In a country where culture has dictated women’s dependency on men, this shows progress in the right direction. That’s why it’s unfortunate that one Swedish-based company has reminded us of Saudi Arabia’s misogynist past and pervading gender inequality.

In the Saudi Arabian version of the latest IKEA catalog, women have been completely airbrushed out of it. From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to bemoan the male-dominated culture that prevents women from appearing in furniture advertisements. In the 21st century, it is a shame that there is a country where women cannot travel or work without the permission of a male guardian.

But what role does IKEA play in this gender discussion? It is, after all, just trying to sell furniture. Whether IKEA is directly responsible for these changes is unknown. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, IKEA has since issued the following statement, “We should have reacted to the exclusion of women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalog since it does not align with the IKEA group values.”

On paper, this statement was politically correct, but in perspective, it was unnecessary. Major companies broadcast different advertisements in countries with different cultural norms. IKEA was correct in its intention to respect Saudi Arabian values, but unfortunately, it overplayed the cultural sensitivity card.

To photograph a woman in a compromising and risque position in Saudi Arabia is unacceptable. However, femininity isn’t so greatly suppressed that women cannot be presented in a respectful manner. For IKEA to assume the worst was a blatant offense to the steps being made toward gender equality. Women now work alongside men, and women will continue to find employment with increased educational opportunities.

In an age where information between people of conflicting ideologies can be easily shared, it will be impossible for Saudi Arabia to keep women tied down forever. These forces are already in action.

In the meantime, we must realize that the beliefs that have justified the oppression of women in the past will not change overnight. But, as the catalog demonstrated, to completely ignore the presence of women in domestic lives is not an act of respect, but an exaggeration of a cultural rigidity that is slowly beginning to crumble.