According to an article I read this morning on NBC (and confirmed by several other news sources), IKEA chose to cater to the Saudi request to completely remove women from its Saudi catalog. I find this news very disturbing.

This juxtaposition of the two catalog photographs bothers me greatly. One human being is removed from the scene for the simple fact of her gender. She is not dressed immodestly, but her identity as a woman is reason enough for her image to be completely erased. These photographs, to me, are eerie set side by side, and the psychological effect of this removal, I imagine, is so damaging to women within Saudi society.

In my view, IKEA’s action communicates several ideas: 1) a reiteration of the idea that the only legitimate viewers of the catalog would be males, which consequently indicates (by the fact of their removal being necessary) that female human beings (if we must call them human beings) are an impediment to the male experience, 2) the goal of marketing and profiting within a foreign society is worth more than a steadfast acknowledgement of one’s own cultural belief that women are human beings. Indeed, let the market decide who is human and who is not and which contexts they are to be perceived as human beings.

The story raises some very important questions, relevant not only to the oppression of women but to oppression in general. How does one respect the rights of others to have and hold their beliefs when those beliefs are so oppressive according to one’s own worldview? Is a standard definition of oppression, recognized by distinctive cultures and religions alike, possible? As hard as it might be for Western women to understand, could it be possible that women within Saudi Arabia do not view such treatment as oppressive? If not, would it be right to try to convince them otherwise?

Furthermore, should a Western corporation based in a society that values women as equal members of society provide alternative marketing materials within cultures that do not value women as equal members of society? Is that a respect for the culture or religion of others or is it, rather, a compromise of one’s own cultural values?

IKEA has since issued a statement regretting its decision to remove women. However, the fact that IKEA went along with it initially (and is not the only company to do so) is disappointing, and it worries me just a bit.

Currently, I am participating in a city wide reading initiative. Our book this month is The Handmaid’s Tale. I have a whole month of lectures and panel discussions and film screening to attend, and I look forward to sharing my critique of and response to the book/ lectures/ discussions/ and films throughout the month.

However, the book itself has me thinking a lot about the systematic silencing and removal of women from society. The presentation of one demographic in the media to itself (i.e. the presentation of women in the media to women viewers) seems to communicate a good deal about who is considered the most legitimate members of society and furthermore how the legitimate members of society expect other members to behave. Whether it is overly sexualized portrayals of women in the media, as in Western culture, or the complete removal of women from the media, as in Saudi culture, both approaches communicate that the primary and most legitimate consumers of media are men. And, both effect how women would view themselves as a result.

Whereas overly sexualized portrayals of women in the media are one sort of beast, the complete erasure of any images of women is quite another. To be denied seeing oneself in any media presentation clearly denies any acknowledgement of one’s own humanity.

This is very, very disturbing to me.