Whenever I buy something from IKEA — a bookshelf for the kids, a storage unit for the basement — the domestic bliss that was promised in the pages of the Swedish company’s catalogue gets shattered before too long. “It’s broken,” my husband will complain as the simple instruction manual mocks us. A few hours later, possibly with glue, the “broken” set is complete, but the stress and annoyance last much longer.
That latent outrage towards IKEA must be shared universally. It’s one way to explain why so many global critics blamed the company for airbrushing out all the women in the Saudi Arabian version of its catalogue, a move made to satisfy the Saudi monarchy’s gender segregation rules. The scrubbing of the catalogue gave new meaning to the term “gone, baby, gone.” IKEA accepted the blame, citing a communications breakdown with its local franchise. But that explanation makes the whole controversy feel like merely a mistake. And it lets Saudi Arabia off the hook. IKEA’s real fault isn’t adhering to the government’s rules; it’s failing to use the furor over the catalogue to expose — and sharply condemn — the singular rigidity of the Saudi monarchy. IKEA should have named and shamed.
Global companies often alter marketing materials out of respect for a nation’s particular norms. Except that in Saudi Arabia, it’s almost impossible to find an easy balance, even when compromising. The catalogue dispute is a symptom of a larger problem. The monarchy’s gender restrictions are wholly inconsistent with Saudi Arabia’s participation in the global economy. They are so strict that the only possible response by the frustrated censor of the IKEA catalogue was to — poof! — edit all women out of the picture.
Saudi Arabia’s clampdown on women’s rights is not required under Islam, any more than Judaism compelled some orthodox newspapers to edit out Hillary Clinton from the famous situation room photo during the Osama bin Laden raid. No other Muslim country deprives women of the right to drive, demands that they be covered in public, or requires that a woman have a male guardian for a visit to the doctor. Human Rights Watch’s 2012 World Report puts it succinctly: “The Saudi guardianship system continues to treat women as minors.”
As Saudi women have become exposed to more outside influences — perhaps including the chance to shop at IKEA — they are making more demands of their government. They have asked for and received partial voting rights, to take effect in a few years; they also want the right to drive cars.
As Middle Eastern nations have faced popular demands for greater democratic freedoms, the region’s monarchies have scrambled more quickly and effectively than other governments to defuse internal dissatisfaction. Not a single monarchy has been brought down during the Arab Spring. Their survival may be explained by their capacity to dole out money (Saudi Arabia), use force to quiet unrest (Bahrain), or appeal to the sense that kings are more benevolent than the autocrats who sometimes replace them (Jordan).
But Saudi Arabia is not immune to external pressure, especially when the world is watching. For decades, the Olympic Committee allowed countries that prohibited women from national teams to compete, an action inconsistent with the committee’s own rules. The policy was unsustainable and unfair, and eventually the committee began to push nations to open sports to women. Saudi Arabia was the last holdout. Alone in its exclusion, it folded.
The fact that Saudi women finally competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics demonstrates how global organizations — including corporations — can be a force for social change while still being respectful of local norms. Saudi Arabia’s female judo wrestler, for example, was allowed to wear a head covering, but it was modified to protect her from choking.
Instead of taking the hit, IKEA should have forced the Saudi regime to take responsibility for the catalogue, defending its male-only pictures to a wider world where women are frequent shoppers. In no other country, IKEA could remark, are women completely erased. The burden of explanation should have been placed on the monarchy.
IKEA’s shelves may sometimes be difficult to assemble. But it’s the Saudi Arabian regime that is truly broken.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on