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Do Femen Ignore the Issue of 'Difference'?

22/04/2013 14:35 BST | Updated 22/06/2013 10:12 BST

In her 1984 work, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, bell hooks made one of many claims that would see her become a central figure of the radical feminist movement. "White female racism undermines feminist struggle," hooks asserted, going on to note that as long as racially intolerant attitudes festered within feminist activism, such groups had a "vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others."

In part, hooks was responding to the exclusivity inherent within second wave Feminism. Dominated by the voices of wealthy, white women, hooks and her contemporaries recognised a need for diversity in feminist theory. This would mean taking into account all aspects of a woman's identity - such as her race, class and sexual orientation - in order to form a comprehensive and forward-thinking brand of Feminism. In acknowledging the differences within female experience, the women's movement could take an 'intersectional' approach to its cause.

Perhaps we can attribute second wave Feminism's failure to do this to the time in which it flourished. In the days of Friedan and bra burning, there was undoubtedly not as much understanding about issues of race, class and gender, and how they contribute to the bigger picture of feminist thought, as there exists today. But despite all our progress, it seems that the dismissal of difference in feminist activism still poses a challenge.

When radical Ukrainian activists, Femen, declared April 4th 'International Topless Jihad Day,' it is unlikely they harboured racist thoughts as they paraded, bare breasted and sporting faux monobrows and hijabs, through the streets of Paris. Their actions were sparked by the violent threats their fellow activist, Tunisian student Amina Tyler, had received for posting a photo of herself topless on Facebook, her torso emblazoned with the anti-religion slogan, "Fuck Your Morals."

On the surface, their objection is understandable, and even merits praise and support. But on a deeper inspection, Femen's well-meaning actions betray damaging consequences.

The response from Muslim women presented a clear message, summed up in one young Muslim's words: "I don't appreciate being used to reinforce western imperialism. You do not represent me!" Femen's counter-response was as patronising as their original protest, continuing to dismiss criticisms from the very group they allege to support.

As white, western women, Femen protest from a position of privilege. While Feminism is universally united against crimes such as sexual violence, there are particular nuances that cannot be ignored when considering the struggle of women from disadvantaged or underrepresented minorities. Femen might intend to liberate the women of Islam, but their over-simplification of Muslim women's experiences not only alienates this group, it offends them.

It is all too easy to condemn a cultural or religious tradition from a position of advantage. The reaction from Muslim women confirmed what is already common knowledge - that it is often their choice, rather than a rule dictated to them, to cover up for their religion. Making claims, as Femen did, that not only generalise, but victimise, an entire group, shows a worrying level of ignorance which overshadows the credibility of their actions.

Femen show an awareness that is admirable, given the political apathy often favoured among society. But the brash execution of their protests carries an unfavourable connotation of post-colonial guilt. Their commitment to Feminism undoubtedly deserves applause but if they want to rally their Muslim sisters, they'd do well to acknowledge their difference rather than to ignore it.