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Beds, Silverware, and Sexism: All Available at IKEA now

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Searching for a perfect new sofa or a nice new kitchen table? Would you like a hefty handful of sexism along with it?

Then it's time to head to IKEA.

The latest news from the giant Swedish flat-pack company reveals that in the Saudi Arabian version of their catalogue, IKEA has helpfully removed all women from the photographs, lest they offend Saudi Arabian morals by implying that women might go shopping or might even, heaven forbid, enjoy eating in the kitchen with friends or helping their children brush their teeth.

Most pictures simply erase the women, although one transforms a woman into a man by deleting earrings and adding socks, so no trace of a feminine foot need assault sensitive Saudi eyes (see this Swedish website for a selection of photoshopped images from the catalogue).

There's such a thing as respecting a culture and a set of beliefs, and in general that's a worthy approach when dealing with people from other backgrounds, but there's also something called going too far. And in this case, IKEA has gone too far.

Perhaps women in Saudi Arabia aren't allowed to drive or to go shopping unaccompanied. But surely this is not a stance that most countries in the world agree with. And surely, too, this is not something we should encourage by implying that we agree with it.

As the Swedish minister of commerce, Ewa Björling, was quoted as saying, "If Saudi Arabia doesn't let women be seen or to work, they are missing out on half their intellectual capital. These photos are another depressing example of how far there is to go in regard to equality between men and women in Saudi Arabia."

IKEA obviously wants to have a good reputation in Saudi Arabia and wants to make money there, because otherwise they would not have started selling products in that country. But the bottom line shouldn't win over a basic matter of ethics. IKEA could have taken a stand and said, "We're bringing you Swedish furniture and with it, we're importing our values. In our country, we encourage women to shop, to work, and to otherwise do anything that men do, and that's how we plan to do business here." After all, IKEA apparently requires new employees to learn about Sweden and to learn some Swedish words, so why not also learn Swedish values? And these new employees could then pass on the Swedish point of view to their customers. And the Saudi Arabian people could have taken IKEA on its own terms or not.

Would IKEA open a store in Somalia and require all its female employees to have gone through female genital mutilation (also known as female circumcision)? Would IKEA hire children if they started doing business in a country where child labour is legal/acceptable? Both these scenarios seem unlikely, which is at least positive. So that makes us wonder why IKEA would allow and even kowtow to sexism in other countries.

It's important to remember that just because a particular country or culture has a certain belief doesn't mean that we have to respect that belief. Unlike men and women, not all beliefs are equal. And sexist beliefs clearly should not be respected or accepted.

Yes, IKEA has now apologised. But we still can't help wondering what they were thinking (if they were thinking) and what else might be going on in the land of the flat-pack.

If you want a rather depressing laugh, look at this blog, which mocks IKEA's catalogue by removing or changing pictures that feature women.

And if you want a depressing shopping experience, you know where to go. You can get beds, colanders, lampshades, and meatballs IKEA, but as for the supposed Swedish belief in equality, don't hold your breath.