Can we talk for just one more minute about Ikea airbrushing the women out of the Saudi Arabian edition of its catalogue? While I won't be planning a trip to the Kingdom any time soon, I do think the reaction to this has been knee-jerk and unreflexive.
Take this comment from the Swedish Gender Equality Minister Nyamko Sabuni:
And if there is any country in the world that needs to know IKEA's values, it is Saudi Arabia. Therefore it is a pity that it is there they choose to abandon part of their values, in this case equality.
You know what Ikea values? Selling furniture. Their management may have a secondary wish to run an egalitarian company. But their job is to move as much particle board as possible.
Why did people consider it a gaffe when Mitt Romney said, "Corporations are people?" Because people are complex creatures with multiple motivations. Corporations exist solely to maximize profit. So, why would we expect Ikea to do something that would hurt its bottom line?
Should Ikea support the right of women to go sleeveless by printing this page in the Saudi edition of its catalog, only to have it censored before publication?
There is no arguing that Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive nations in the world for women. Apart from being banned from driving, Saudi women are forbidden to work or travel abroad without permission of a male "guardian." It is nonsensical to expect Ikea to publish advertisements which will directly hurt sales of their product.
BUT . . .
Ikea went further than crafting their advertising to suit local tastes. They also deleted the photograph of designer Clara Gausch, while leaving her three male colleagues.
WTF? If the Saudi market couldn't bear to see a successful designer with two X chromosomes, they could have done away with the whole page. Deleting the female designer while leaving her male colleagues is denying her attribution based solely on her gender. This is qualitatively different because Gausch is the creator of these products, not a prop arranged to maximize sales.
Ikea released a statement saying, "We should have reacted and realized that excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalogue is in conflict with the IKEA Group values.” What else could they say when these images were publicized by every major western news outlet?
So, what's a feminist to do? In a nutshell, American governments prop up the Saudis because we want their oil. Saudis use their oil wealth to create a country which oppresses women. It's a problem. So, today's $5 goes to Renewable World, which works to create renewable energy sources in poor communities worldwide. I know it's only a few drops of oil less, but we have to start somewhere.