Ikea is being sued for a form of gender discrimination after it published a special furniture catalog in Israel that deliberately left out photos of women and girls. The catalog was created especially for the local ultra-Orthodox community.
As a first step in the legal battle, Jerusalem District Court was asked on Tuesday to approve the multimillion dollar suit as a class action. The case was filed by Hannah Katsman, a modern Orthodox woman from the central Israeli town of Petah Tikva, and the Israel Religious Action Center — the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country.
After discovering the catalog in her mailbox, Katsman alerted the center, a leading advocate in the battle against gender discrimination on religious grounds.
According to Orly Erez-Likhovski, director of the legal department at the center, this is the first time an international company has faced a class action suit for such discrimination in Israel. The suit was filed against the Israeli division of Ikea and its director, Shuki Koblenz.
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“The total exclusion of women and girls from the catalog sends a serious and difficult message that women have no value and there is something wrong with their presence, even in the family-home space depicted in the catalog,” according to the suit.
“This discrimination and exclusion has severely insulted, angered and traumatized those who received the catalog,” it added. “The damage caused by this exclusion affects much larger circles and has the potential to harm the status of women in society in general and in ultra-Orthodox society in particular.”
The controversial catalog was distributed for a limited period in 2017. Following complaints, Ikea in Israel announced it would refrain from distributing catalogs that exclude women in the future. A subsequent catalog distributed in Israel that also targeted the ultra-Orthodox population had no photographs of people in it at all.
The main headquarters of Ikea in Sweden had not been aware of the special catalog and issued an apology immediately. Israel is the only country in the world in which images of women were intentionally removed from one of its catalogs. An attempt to publish a similar catalog in Saudi Arabia was thwarted, according to Erez-Likhovski.
The petitioners have demanded that Ikea pay compensation to close to the 10,000 ultra-Orthodox women they estimate have been harmed by its actions. They are asking for minimum damages of 1,500 shekels ($415) for each woman represented in the class action. In addition, they are demanding that Ikea resume distributing its regular catalog, with photos of both women and men, in the ultra-Orthodox community.
To quantify the damages, the center commissioned a survey of women in the ultra-Orthodox community. According to its findings, close to 20 percent of those women questioned who had seen the catalog took offense at its content.
Last September, an Israeli court awarded 1 million shekels in damages in a class action suit brought against an ultra-Orthodox radio station that refused to put women on the air.
The suit was filed by a group of Orthodox feminists, Kolech, on behalf of ultra-Orthodox women who as a result of this practice could not hear the voices of women on an ultra-Orthodox radio station called Kol Barama. The center represented Kolech in that case as well.
“The conventional wisdom is that ultra-Orthodox women are fine with being excluded,” said Erez-Likhovski. “What we have learned from these cases is that that is a complete myth.”