The Swedish lifestyle and furniture giant Ikea came under fierce press and government criticism yesterday after it emerged the company had removed all images of women from the Saudi Arabian edition of its catalogue.
Some 200 million copies of the company's forthcoming furniture, kitchen and household goods catalogue are set for distribution in 38 countries worldwide. They will appear in 27 languages.
However, yesterday the Swedish newspaper Metro revealed that Ikea planned to bring out a special edition of its catalogue in Saudi Arabia from which all images of women had been systematically removed.
The omissions appeared to be an effort to minimise the risk of upsetting Saudi customers.
Metro remarked that unlike liberal Sweden, Saudi Arabia was a country in which "women don't get to vote, drive cars or move about freely". The paper printed excerpts from an advance copy of the Saudi catalogue alongside its Swedish counterpart, which exposed the omissions.
The Swedish version of the catalogue showed a mother standing at a sink next to her child in an Ikea bathroom, while a man was featured in the background. In the Saudi catalogue, the man remained in the background but the mother was missing and the child stood alone. Metro said that in its Saudi catalogue, Ikea had also removed a photograph of a female designer who had helped to create the company's "PS" line of furniture.
The newspaper's findings prompted a damning response from Sweden's trade minister, Ewa Björling. "It is impossible to retouch women out of reality. These images are yet another regrettable example that shows we have a long road ahead when it comes to gender equality in Saudi Arabia," she told Metro.
Ikea said it regretted the move but did not indicate whether it planned to stop distribution of its Saudi catalogue. "We should have reacted and realised that excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalogue is in conflict with Ikea group values," a spokeswoman said.
Earlier this month, the company attracted attention after censoring its Russian website by removing the photographs of four young people sporting masks similar to those worn by the controversial "Pussy Riot" punk band.
At the time, Ikea said it did not want to allow its site "to be used as a platform for campaigning of any kind", according to the Reuters news agency.