Sunday, October 21, 2012

Should we expect global brands to respect universal human rights?

Following the scorn heaped upon IKEA for deleting all adult women from the Saudi version of its catalogue, I think it's time to start talking about how we hold global brands accountable for how they operate in places without basic human rights.

This week, I noticed a picture going around that claimed to be from the door of a Pizza Hut in Jeddah:

Digging a little deeper, I found a 2007 blog post with more documentation of major brands giving in to sexist Saudi social and religious policy:

In this case, the policy of sex segregation is because women must expose their faces to eat, so no unmarried and unrelated man can be allowed to see them.

At McDonald's, the segregation is has created the "need" for restaurants to build parallel and non-communicating sections for (male) "singles" and "families".

Admittedly, this was five years ago. But has anything changed?

From 2009:

An American businesswoman was carted off to jail by religious police in Saudi Arabia for sitting with a male colleague at a Starbucks in Riyadh, the Times of London reported.
The woman, who spent a day behind bars, was strip-searched and forced to sign a false confession before being released, the newspaper said. The Times declined to publish her name at her request. 
The 37-year-old businesswoman works for a finance company in Riyadh. Her problem began when her office lost electricity. She and her male colleagues then went to a nearby Starbucks to use the coffee shop's Internet connection. 
She sat with a male colleague in the Starbucks' family area, the only place women are allowed to sit with men.  
"Some men came up to us with very long beards and white dresses. They asked 'Why are you here together?' I explained about the power being out in our office. They got very angry and told me what I was doing was a great sin," she told the Times. 
Following her arrest and interrogation, the woman was hauled before a judge.
"He said 'You are sinful and you are going to burn in hell.' I told him I was sorry. I was very submissive. I had given up. I felt hopeless," she told the Times. 
The newspaper said the woman had received a visit from officials at the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia. A U.S. official told The Times that it was being treated as "an internal Saudi matter" and refused to comment on her case.

And this year:
Western companies on Saudi land must comply with Saudi religious regulations. Fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and other US firms, for instance, maintain sex-segregated eating zones in their restaurants. The facilities in the women's section are usually lower in quality.
I will just flat out say it: I don't think brands that want to do business in a world that respects the equality and dignity of women should be doing business in places where women have no basic rights. Full stop.

Recently, I refused to work on a project for a North American educational institution (NDA prevents me from naming names) that wanted to recruit teachers for a Saudi school. They would happily accept applications from anyone, but in reality only wanted white males. Fuck that.

Everyone — EVERYONE — deserves the same rights and opportunities as everyone else, and cannot be denied them simply because of what's between their legs. Whether that is a major right such as education and voting, or more mundane things like being able to drive or buy junk food, the continued denial of this equality is an affront to anyone who believes women are free individuals.

IKEA, when they were called out by the media in their base of Sweden, issued this statement:
We should have reacted and realized that excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalogue is in conflict with the IKEA Group values. We are now reviewing our routines to safeguard a correct content presentation from a values point-of-view in the different versions of the IKEA Catalogue worldwide.
You may not like where I'm going with this post. After all, don't universal human rights guarantee freedom of religion? Isn't it the Saudis' business how they run their society?

Personally, I have no problem saying that the way women are treated in Saudia Arabia, and many other countries is wrong. I don't care whether the reason given is religion, tradition, or just fear of women's liberation. Human beings deserve better.

I cannot change Saudi Arabia. But I can let western brands know that we're watching them. If expansion into wealthy but oppressive countries is more important to them than respect for women's rights, then that belief should be seen as part of their global brand.

If you want a Starbucks coffee, go ahead and order one. What you have in your hand is a beverage that stands for sex segregation and arrest of women who dare order one without their husband or brother present. If you have a Big Mac attack, remember that somewhere a single woman has had to hire a taxi driver to take her through the drive-through to get one, because to walk into the restaurant would put her at risk of being beaten and arrested by so-called morality police. Same with your Pizza Hut hot dog stuffed greasewheel, or your Double Down.

When you support a brand, you are making its values part of your own. That's the way branding and identity work. Would you like fries with that misogyny?

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