Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
Brooklyn, New York, United States
June 01
Freelance writer, editor, and first citizen of Judy's World.

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OCTOBER 1, 2012 7:22AM

Ikea "disappears" female models for Saudi catalogue

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We’ve all heard about Stalin’s practice of not only liquidating his political rivals with a bullet to the back of the neck or an icepick through the skull, but also erasing them from photographs, as if they had never existed in the first place. This practice seemed so bizarre to the Western world back then that George Orwell felt inspired to caricature the phenomenon in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which party functionary Winston Smith “disappears” printed evidence of unwanted persons and facts “down the memory hole.”

Once such an idea gets put out into the world, it takes on a life of its own and is bound to spring up anywhere. This month, the Ikea company has enhanced Stalin’s “disappearing” technique to new heights by essentially deleting an entire gender. The company’s latest catalogue for the Saudi Arabian market is pretty much identical to the Swedish original, but with one whopping difference: To make the catalogue more culturally appropriate, the editors have erased or even transgendered all the female models that appear upon its pages.


Now you see her - and now you don't. 

Several of the women have simply been erased from the ads, Soviet-style. In one case, a seated woman with short hair who is shown from behind has been subtly transformed into a man. A couple of pictures showing a room full of people have been emptied entirely.

Why the purge of female figures? I don’t know when you last had an Ikea catalogue in your hands, but you cant take my word for it that the images there are about as tame as you can get. The models are always attractive, modern young people shown enjoying their new self-assembled furniture. But the images grate on Saudi sensibilities, where it’s not only blasphemy to depict the Prophet Mohamed in any form, but where showing images of lightly dressed women can trigger a visit from the religious police.

Ikea 1

Now you see her...

Ikea 2

...and now you don't. 

When asked about the purge, Ikea spokesperson Sara Carlsson told the Swedish newspaper DN:

We will never accept any form of discrimination. Of course the Ikea company supports human rights for all people. That is rooted in the Ikea concept and is essential to our code of conduct.

When pressed to explain how these wonderfully progressive sentiments fit in with the purge of female models, she merely replied.

I am not at all aware of this matter and I haven’t seen [the catalogue]. I can only say that the Ikea company stands for equal opportunities and basic rights for all people. Unfortunately I can’t respond to why it looks as it does. 

Ikea underlined its commitment to human rights last week by removing an image from its Russian website that was reminiscent of the Pussy Riot punk collective currently appealing their two year sentence for "hooliganism."

Ikea Russia 

Ikea thought this image was too icky for its Russian customers.

If Orwell could be inspired by Stalin’s deletion of individual persons from the visual record, I’d like to see what a contemporary novelist could do with Ikea’s deletion of half of humanity.



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Wow Fascinating. I am reminded of the Assedic Jewish publication in New York that eliminated Hilary's photo from the war room look at the staff getting Ben Laden. Shame on Ikea.
Oh yes, I'd forgotten all about that war room pic! Naturally, this sort of thing is going on all the time, but a lot of people will be surprised to see a would-be progressive corporation like Ikea, which practically bleeds hipness every chance it gets, getting in on the act. I guess they could have Photoshopped hijabs over the women, but I'm not sure that would have been much better.
Saudi Arabia's media laws are highly restrictive. It's possible that they had to do this in order to distribute their catalogs without penalty. If that's the case, I guess the question becomes whether they take the high road and forfeit the business or whether they give access, in some small way, to the outside world.
I have to echo jlsathre, here. Do you cut off a lucrative market over catalog pictures? What would have been truly reprehensible is if they had blatantly replaced all of the women with Saudi men, or any man, for that matter. It would be nice if the world were more progressive, but maybe this is a step. Who knows. Get them hooked, then start filtering the culture in, too.
Thanks, Judy.

A reason to avoid Ikea other than particle-board beds and dressers.

I would love to see them try to turn the Victoria's Secret ladies into men... They purchase tons of it you know.
Frankly, I don't see the point of the criticism. Ikea is a business to sell stuff. Making the catalog impossible to distribute in a consumer area totally defeats the point of printing it. Ikea made the catalog useable. I don't approve of the anti-feminist prejudices of >Saudi Arabia but sending out a catalog intentionally to be destroyed would be financial insanity and have no effect on Saudi policies.
I'm really surprised a progressive company like Ikea would do this. Just this year they showed families with two dads. Made me love them even more... ~r
Frankly I am rather disturbed at the absence of a depiction of an orthodox Israeli family sitting down to a breakfast snack with a group of Palestinian friends in a friendly bright kitchen setting or perhaps a couple of US soldiers and some Talibans having a friendly chat over a display of soft drinks in attractive and utilitarian glassware. And how many black and obviously Latinos are in delightful home settings enjoying their company together. I wonder how that might affect sales.
Phyllis and Jan,
I understand Ikea's motives all right, but this story just goes to show how willing even the most progressive-seeming companies are to compromise their alleged principles when profits are at stake. It won't surprise many of us, but I think it's always worth pointing out.
We have plenty of "disappearing" of unwanted political ideas and protest when ever they think they can get away with it here too. Fortunately many people are starting to recognize it due to the fact that they take it too far and it is hard not too notice.
[r] Ikea had commercials with gay couples at one point in NYC at least. I don't know if that was progressive of them or they wanted the gay market. Both it would seem. Win/win.

This is troubling and the slippery slope once again profits uber alles and the corporation as legal person having the personality profile of a psychopath. Self-interest and ruthlessness, amorality. I didn't know what to expect from this blog. I thought maybe human trafficking.

This is especially odd and quirky but so very creepy.

There is a great book called Every Man in the Village is a Liar. I did a blog about it on correntewire -- maybe I cross-posted it here. I think you would appreciate it especially, Judy.


Here are some telling excerpts from Stack's book. She is intrepid:

"One afternoon I had found a Starbucks in a fancy shopping mall in Riyadh. I filled my lungs with the rich perfume of coffee, and it smelled like home -- caffeinated, comforting, American. I asked for a latte and the barista gave me a bemused look; his eyes flickered and he shrugged. The milk steamer whined, he handed over the coffee, and I turned my back on his uneasy face. The Saudi men stopped talking and watched me pass with hard stares. I ignored them and sank into an overstuffed armchair."

“Excuse me,” hissed the voice in my ear. “You can’t sit here.” The man from the counter hung at my elbow, glowering."

“Excuse me?”

“Emmmm... “ He drew his discomfort into a long syllable. “You can not stay here.”

“What? Why not?”

Then he said it, “Men only.”

He doesn’t tell me what I will learn later: Starbucks has another, unmarked door around back that leads to a smaller espresso bar, and a handful of tables smothered by curtains. That is the “family” section. As a woman, that’s where I belong. I have no right to mix with male customers or sit in view of passing shoppers, I must confine myself to the separate, inferior, and usually invisible spaces where Saudi Arabia shunts half the population.

I stand up. It’s the only thing I can do. Men in their white robes and red-checked kaffiyehs stare impassively over their mugs. I drop my eyes, and immediately wish I hadn’t. Snatching up my skirts to keep from stumbling, I walk out of the store and into the clatter of the shopping mall.

Futilely I would count down the days until I could flee westward on sterilized jets, only to remember, over and over agin, that there was no escape. Saudi Arabia stuck to me, followed me home and shadowed me through my days, tainting the way I perceived men and women everywhere.


The rules are different in Saudi Arabia. The same U.S government that drummed up public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women goes to Saudi Arabia and keeps its mouth shut. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks make women stand in separate lines. Hotels like the InterContinental and the Sheraton won’t rent a woman a room without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into rooms alone are regarded as prostitutes. Saudi Arabia is still the place where America colludes, where we have quietly decided that women’s rights are negotiable.


“Police do not have the authority to enter homes and bring abused children under public protection ... according to law, wives cannot report domestic abuse by husbands to the police ...

According to Islamic law, a father who kills his child is not eligible for the death penalty ..
The father is likely to serve a jail sentence of a number of years if he’s found guilty. The mother may receive monetary compensation for the death of her daughter.


I looked up from the page. All around me sat men -- men from America and men from Great Britain and men from France, men eating their breakfasts and preparing for business meetings. Men who’d already begun their meetings, hunched with jovial, berobed Saudi men over platters of scrambled eggs. Men meeting for oil in this land of invisible women.

Pundits like to talk about Saudi reform. About how maybe women will be allowed to vote, or drive. But after years in the Middle East, the word reform signified, to me, the tangled, unholy alliance between America and Arab dictators who grant and revoke press laws, women’s rights, and political party laws on a whim. The flaw in the notion of Arab reform is the idea that people who lord over their land in autocratic splendor will voluntarily relinquish power. In truth, progress is doled out and taken back at the king’s pleasure. Rulers take one step forward and holler about it, wait until the world is busy elsewhere, and slide back to to where they started. Generations of diplomats and journalists talk about reform, and in the meantime the stories pile up:


The word woman is not popular in Saudi Arabia. The going term is lady. I heard a lot about ladies from Saudi officials. They talked themselves into knots, trying to depict a moderate, misunderstood kingdom, bemoaning stereotypes in the Western press: Women banned from driving? Well, they don’t want to drive anyway. They all have drivers, and why would a lady want to mess with parking? The religious police who stalk the streets and shopping centers, beating “Islamic values” into the populace? Oh, Saudi officials scoff, they aren’t strict or powerful. You hear stories to the contrary? Sensationalistic exaggerations, perpetuated by outsiders who don’t understand Saudi Arabia.


And then, too, the truth is not really easy to admit or articulate. You can’t admit how dirty it made you feel, the thousand ways you were slighted and how flimsy your self-assurance turned out to be, how those little battles bit at you like acid. Men who refused to shake your hand; squatting on floors with men who refused to look at your face because you brimmed with sin, not one glance in an hour-long interview; the sneering underfed soldiers who hissed and talked about your ass when you walked past. You can’t admit it made you so bitter that, for a time, you looked at any woman who hadn’t been where you have been as if she were an ingenue who didn’t understand the world she occupied. She was blind to the dark, ruthless, fraternity of men -- all men around the globe, all around the globe -- how luridly dangerous they were, how we had to keep pushing them or we’d wind up where we began hundreds of years ago. You are not supposed to say any of that. It proves you were never really up to the game, that you might as well have stayed home. So you pretend it’s nothing, you tell everyone that you were lucky because you could talk to the women.

end of quotes ...

sorry to fill up so much space ... but she does explain a lot ... and the collusion of the US businessmen who are willing to ENABLE the misogyny and join in!!!!

best, libby