Julie L. Kessler
lawyer traveler writer


Omitting Women Altogether

Yesterday the L.A. Times business section contained a remarkable story by Tiffany Hsu. In the article, Hsu reported that the Saudi Arabian’s version of the Swedish retailer Ikea’s catalog had omitted something. A striped chair perhaps? A flowery sofa? An avant-garde Scandia shaped box of glassware? No, the Saudi version omitted something a bit more, shall I say, utilitarian to its bottom line.


The Saudi version of the Ikea catalog simply erased all the women pictured in the Swedish retailer’s catalog. That’s right. Only men and boys in the household catalog pictures for the Saudi’s.


The world has long debated and been critical of Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women, which is well known in this regard to be one of the most restrictive and repressive in the world. However, the complete omission of not only half its population, but the very segment of the population who makes the vast majority of decisions vis-a-vis household furnishings and decoration is mind bogglingly stunning for what the omission represents in a broader human sense.

In general terms we tend to omit what’s superfluous, unimportant, redundant, boring, stupid, offensive or otherwise not useful from our art, our literature, our culture and our stories. We don’t simply white out entire segments of our population based on gender just because we have access to an app for that. Now mind you, the Ikea catalog is hardly titillating as Playboy, not exciting as a trip around the world, and certainly not as scandalous as say, the former governor of California’s recent and incredibly lame interview on 60 Minutes. No, the Ikea catalog is precisely what it purports to be: a catalog of household furnishings, decorative items and textiles uniquely designed, affordably priced, mostly green and virtually impossible for the average Homo sapien to assemble without the aid of fourteen extra hands, preferably one with a PhD in architectural engineering. Some peripheral extra sensory perception probably wouldn’t hurt either.


The gender omission is of course even more remarkable given that Scandinavia in general and Sweden in particular has some of the world’s most progressive equal rights laws protecting women. It also has some of the most generous maternity and child care leave employment protection laws anywhere on the planet.


The Ikea Group was quick to issue a statement saying that the altered Saudi catalog clashes with its values and that the Ikea Group does “not accept any kind of discrimination.” The Ikea Group went on to clarify that Ikea Saudi Arabia is run by a franchisee outside the Ikea Group. That may well be true, but the fact remains that the franchisee gets its merchandise from the franchisor, which of course is the Ikea Group.


If the Ikea Group truly does “not accept any kind of discrimination,” then the Ikea Group can make a decision not to sell their products in countries where blatant gender discrimination is part of the daily social fabric. The Ikea Group certainly can’t force its values on countries with values different from its own and the majority of the world. But the Ikea Group can make a fiscally difficult though socially and morally correct judgment about what steps to take next.


I am neither naive nor Pollyanna and the Ikea Group will, in all likelihood, continue to sell their products in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere where half the population is simply eliminated from its social discourse. But I have only one question. How were all those men and boys in the Saudi catalog born and raised since apparently there are no women in the homes, at least not homes furnished or decorated with Ikea products? I’ve heard that invisible women make rather strange bedfellows.

Date Posted:  Oct. 4 2012