A month of hotly debated cultural relativism continued when Swedish furniture maker Ikea admitted to digitally removing women from its catalog for Saudi Arabia.
USA Today points out that women being depicted in ads in Saudi Arabia isn’t illegal, but the strict standards for baring skin in public and around men put some shots in the catalog at odds with the cultural norms of the region.
Apparently one shot in which a woman was brushing her teeth in a mirror along with a dad washing a little kid had the woman digitally removed from the shot, as did a dinner scene of several men and women dining together. The women in the latter shot were replaced with an empty table.
Ikea issued a mea culpa, saying “We should have reacted and realized that excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalog is in conflict with the IKEA Group values.”
But the company is hardly alone this month in pondering the ramifications of exporting its Western culture to the Middle East. After Hillary Clinton tacitly acknowledged that “The Innocence of Muslims” had enraged Middle Easterners in a statement denouncing violence there, the American right wing jumped all over her for “apologizing” for American free speech values. A week later when a French newspaper published cartoons mocking Mohammed, the French embassy immediately closed down its embassies in the Middle East, preempting any attack there.
As Thomas Friedman sharply pointed out recently the entire Middle East is not awash in extremism waiting to ignite at the slightest offense. As he illustrates the area saw large protests against the voilent attacks on the embassy, though they were not much covered in Western media.
Still, it’s hard not to relate to Ikea’s conundrum here in finding a balance between its own values and crafting its messaging to appear culturally sensitive in the Middle East. Not to mention keeping its own people safe.
But from the sounds of it, it doesn’t seem like Ikea will be doing much airbrushing of women in the future.