Where’s the Line Between Sexism and Sensitivity?

It was recently revealed that in a Saudi Arabian version of the IKEA catalog, all of the women were erased. Here are the similar pages from the U.S. and Saudi Arabian catalogs side-by-side:

After an outcry over this revelation began, IKEA responded by called the removal of women a “mistake” “in conflict with the IKEA group values.” IKEA seems to have agreed with its critics: Erasing women capitulates to a sexist society and that is wrong.

But, there is a competing progressive value at play: cultural sensitivity. Isn’t removing the women from the catalog the respectful and non-ethnocentric thing to do?

Susan Moller Okin wrote a paper that famously asked, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” The question led to two decades of debate and an interrogating of the relationship between culture and power. Who gets to decide what’s cultural?  Whose interests does cultural sensitivity serve?

The IKEA catalog suggests that (privileged) men get to decide what Saudi Arabian culture looks like (though many women likely endorse the cultural mandate to keep women out of view as well). So, respecting culture entails endorsing sexism because men are in charge of the culture?

Well, it depends. It certainly can go that way, and often does. But there’s a feminist (and anti-colonialist) way to do this, too. Respecting culture entails endorsing sexism only if we demonize certain cultures as irredeemably sexist and unable to change. In fact, most cultures have sexist traditions. Since all of those cultures are internally contested and changing, no culture is hopelessly sexist. Ultimately, one can bridge their inclinations to be both culturally sensitive and feminist by seeking out the feminist strains in every culture and hoping to see those manifested as it evolves.

None of this is going to solve IKEA’s problem today, but it does illustrate one of difficult-to-solve paradoxes in contemporary progressive politics.

Crossposted from Sociological Images


  1. Um, couldn’t IKEA just have printed a catalog without ANY people at all in it to advertise in countries that can’t bear to see a woman brushing her teeth in an IKEA-furnished bathroom? Just wondering.

  2. You forgot to mention that a photo of an IKEA designer was also eliminated due to her sex. Removing women from public view in hypothetical situations such as those portrayed in the catalog is one thing, but eliminating the images and ignoring the accomplishments of real life women is another thing entirely. No one need be “sensitive” toward outright mysogyny.

  3. I’ll never agree that pandering to out-and-out misogyny is ever ‘culturally sensitive’. If someone dresses up their contempt for women as ‘part of my culture/religion/whatever’, as far as I’m concerned then I am no longer obliged to show any respect for that ‘culture’, because it shows no respect to me as a woman.

    The misogyny in Saudi culture is man-made. Hiding behind religion is not going to wash – there is no part of the Koran that says ‘deny women the right to vote, drive, work, equate their worth with that of ‘half’ a man’, treat them like children and attempt to erase them from all social visibility’. And even if it did, I would seriously question why a hateful belief system should trump human decency and common sense.

    Ikea should never have let that catalogue be released and if they really are ashamed of what they did, should have pulled it straight away. Calling it a ‘mistake’ shows they are dodging their responsibility – did no one in a board room, office or a printing press stand up and say ‘Hang on, this is F-ed up’? If they didn’t, it’s a frightening indictment of how we are willing to throw women under the bus in the name of respecting a so-called ‘culture’ which would never extend the same respect to us.

  4. In my opinion, there would have been an easy way to portray women in that catalogue and STILL be sensitive to culture (because, Catherine, though I agree that Saudi-Arabian cultural reality is in many ways sexist and needs to be changed, IKEA is not the one to do that – so if they want to sell their products there, they need to find some way of dealing with the situation). What about simply producing another catalogue, featuring Saudi-Arabian women, as they would appear in Saudi advertising, i.e., probably veiled? I realize that would have meant further expenses, but if IKEA wants to open up new markets, they should deal with the consequences.

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