Skip to main content

Images of women shelved in IKEA's Saudi catalog

By Joe Sterling, CNN
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Wed October 10, 2012
  • Saudi woman blogger: Given the Internet, satellite TV, "it's not such a big deal"
  • IKEA apologizes for the airbrushing
  • Saudi women have been fighting an uphill battle for rights
  • Swedish trade minister: "There is still such a long way to go"

(CNN) -- In male-dominated Saudi Arabia, women long have lacked a seat at the table of power.

That harsh reality was reflected in an Ikea furniture catalog distributed in Saudi Arabia that left them missing from other tables as well.

Images of women were airbrushed from copies of the Swedish-based retailer's annual catalog shipped to the religiously conservative Islamic kingdom.

Saudi Arabia turns back 1,000 female pilgrims from Nigeria

For example, one photo in the publication showed a mother, father and two children in a bathroom. In the Saudi version, the image of the woman was removed.

IKEA airbrushes Saudi version of catalog

The news, first reported by Sweden's Metro newspaper, nearly made Sweden's trade minister, Ewa Bjorling, fall off her chair -- or throw one.

"I regret that there is still such a long way to go when it comes to gender equality in Saudi Arabia, which these images clearly show," she said.

Saudi princess opens up about women's rights in her country

"As long as women are hindered from visibility and work outside home, Saudi Arabia will lack 50% of their human capital."

IKEA apologized Monday for the airbrushing, saying it "regrets what has happened and understands that people are upset."

"It is not the local franchisee that has requested the retouch of the discussed pictures. The mistake happened during the work process occurring before presenting the draft catalog for IKEA Saudi Arabia. We take full responsibility for the mistakes made," the company said.

Attaining equal rights has been an uphill battle for Saudi women.

Saudi Arabia let women compete in Olympics for first time

There's been a "push to get women into the workforce, which religious conservatives are fiercely resisting," Human Rights Watch said in an August report.

But women are up against a "different but equal" notion of gender equality in Islam.

"Men have a duty to provide for women, women in turn must obey their male guardians and care for house and children," the rights group noted, citing a 2003 scholarly treatise.

The IKEA airbrushing didn't faze Eman Al Nafjan, writer and blogger who tweets as Saudiwoman.

"We're beyond that right now in Saudi Arabia," she told CNN. "With Internet and satellite TV, there's really no such thing anymore as blacking out women or airbrushing out women. I would be upset if something like Google was doing it, but for IKEA to do it, that's just marketing -- it's not such a big deal."

Images in international magazines had been customarily censored. But times seem to have changed a bit, she said.

A year ago, for example, the shoulders and stomachs in the images of women in tube tops would be colored with a marker.

"They would go through each individual magazine with a black marker and color in any skin that was showing or tear out pages," she said.

"Now they don't. It's strange -- almost like they gave up. I saw a woman wearing a miniskirt on the cover of a magazine when I was at the grocery store," she said.

Just the same, she said, censored images are not unusual.

"I don't think it's right, but it's the culture. Even women who wear the hijab who appear in street advertising posters -- you see that their faces are pixelated and blurred."

CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom contributed to this report

Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:26 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Advocates say the exam includes unnecessarily invasive and irrelevant procedures -- like a so-called "two finger" test.
updated 7:09 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Supplies of food, clothing and fuel are running short in Damascus and people are going hungry as the civil war drags on.
updated 1:01 PM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Supporters of Richard III want a reconstruction of his head to bring a human aspect to a leader portrayed as a murderous villain.
updated 10:48 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Robert Fowler spent 130 days held hostage by the same al Qaeda group that was behind the Algeria massacre. He shares his experience.
updated 12:07 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
As "We are the World" plays, a video shows what looks like a nuclear attack on the U.S. Jim Clancy reports on a bizarre video from North Korea.
The relationship is, once again, cold enough to make Obama's much-trumpeted "reset" in Russian-U.S. relations seem thoroughly off the rails.
Ten years on, what do you think the Iraq war has changed in you, and in your country? Send us your thoughts and experiences.
updated 7:15 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Musician Daniela Mercury has sold more than 12 million albums worldwide over a career span of nearly 30 years.
Photojournalist Alison Wright travelled the world to capture its many faces in her latest book, "Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit."
updated 7:06 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Europol claims 380 soccer matches, including top level ones, were fixed - as the scandal widens, CNN's Dan Rivers looks at how it's done.
updated 7:37 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
That galaxy far, far away is apparently bigger than first thought. The "Star Wars" franchise will get two spinoff movies, Disney announced.
updated 7:27 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
It's an essential part of any trip, an activity we all take part in. Yet almost none of us are any good at it. Souvenir buying is too often an obligatory slog.