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Swedish furniture retailer Ikea has erased women from the pages of its Saudi Arabian catalogue. The 2013 catalogue, printed in 27 languages for distribution in 38 countries, looks almost alike worldwide, displaying identical interiors of kitchens and bathrooms.
However, in the Saudi version women appear to be removed from the images. Metro Sweden first discovered the inconsistency on Ikea’s online catalogues earlier this week. For example, in the Swedish version of the catalogue, a mother can be seen standing at a sink beside her child in a bathroom. But in the Saudi catalogue, the mother is absent. In another image, a young girl who appears to be doing homework has also been airbrushed.
Under Saudi Arabia's strict Muslim law, women are not allowed to drive, vote or be outside of their home without the guardianship of a male relative. Sweden’s Minister for Trade Ewa Björling said the retouched images are a sad example of the oppression of women. “You cannot retouch women from reality," she told Metro. "If Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow women to be seen or work they miss out on half their intellectual capital. These images are yet another sad example of the long road to gender equality in Saudi Arabia."
Ikea has since apologized for the catalogue retouching. "As editors of the catalogue, we are sorry about this," Ikea spokesperson Josefin Thorell told Metro. "We should have reacted and seen that this is in conflict with Ikea's values."
The Ikea group will "revise their procedures" to avoid similar situations in the future. It is still unclear whether the Saudi catalogue will be withdrawn or not.
What remains unclear is who is responsible for the decision to airbrush women out of the catalogue – Ikea or a local entity in Saudi Arabia. A spokeswoman for Inter Ikea Systems, a branch of Ikea that oversees franchises, says that the Swedish retailer should take the blame. "What has come out during our contacts with Saudi Arabia during the day is that it isn't the local franchise that has done something wrong. It is our responsibility at Inter Ikea Systems," Ulrika Englesson Sandman told Metro Sweden.
"The franchise owner has been presented with images without women. The image with a woman in the bathroom and the female designer could very well have been featured in the catalogue for Saudi Arabia."
Now Ikea are mulling over on how to proceed. One alternative is to print a new catalogue. "The catalogue has already been distributed, are we going to print it again? Those are options we are looking at," said Sandman.
Saudi Arabia has three Ikea stores, in Jeddah, Riyadh and Dhahran.