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France’s burkini ban is a dangerous, Islamophobic assault on feminist values

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French police on Tuesday forced a woman to take off her clothes on a beach in Nice because she was wearing a “burkini,” a bathing suit recently criminalized in 15 French cities.

In nearby Cannes, meanwhile, another woman was lying on the beach when approached by police for wearing the same swimsuit. The crowd around her cheered as the police forced her to pull off her clothes. Her daughter, who was swimming, was left crying and humiliated.

You read that right: these women were targeted by police for wearing a swimsuit, a swimsuit that French authorities have decided to ban because they consider it to be associated with “radical Islam.” Both women were charged with wearing an “outfit not respecting good morals and secularism.”

A French court will decide on Friday whether the burkini bans are legal, after a challenge by human rights and anti-Islamophobia groups. But the French Prime Minister has come out in support of the bans, and the ban has already stirred a wave of Islamophobia (including a riot targeting a majority-North African public housing complex in Corsica).

(Image: @Shahed)

(Image: @Shahed)

The “burkini” was invented by a Muslim woman in Australia as a full-body swimsuit to allow women – specifically Muslim women but also those who wanted to avoid sun exposure or else just didn’t feel like wearing a bikini – to swim with the majority of their skin (except for their face) covered. It’s unclear how or why this outfit threatens “national security,” as French authorities have claimed.

It is also unclear how or why this outfit could be distinguished in any way from a simple, apparently “secular” wetsuit, or from the clothes a nun might wear while visiting the beach. Presumably, since the law targets burkinis by name (and does not, for example, specify how much skin must be shown to be legal), the only way to distinguish the three is by noting the religion of the wearer.

This attack on women’s right to choose what to wear in France has gained ground with astonishing speed. Shockingly, mainstream politicians, right-wing commentators and a variety of secular feminists have all lined up in support of the law.

Apparently, telling women what to wear – or in this case, what not to wear – is now considered good nationalism and good feminism among a large proportion of French society. Fully 64% of French nationals polled in a recent survey by Le Figaro said that they thought burkinis should not be worn on the nation’s beaches.

These incidents should be shocking to all of us. And these numbers should be shocking to all of us as well.

What will the effects of these images be on young people around the world? On this woman’s daughter? On the woman humiliated for the crime of lying on a beach wearing clothes? On Muslims wondering what “Western freedom” looks like in practice?

Those who defend the ban have been largely unable to explain why, except that they disagree with veiling and believe it to be oppressive.

But it’s irrelevant what they think about veiling. Attacking women for what they wear, for the presence or lack thereof of a piece of cloth above their head, is misogyny, pure and simple.

Do people who support the burkini ban really not understand that forcing Muslim women to unveil will have the opposite effect of what they want?

Do they not understand that forcing women wearing burkinis to take them off will prevent them from going to the beach? That it will encourage those Islamophobic idiots who already yell at, harass, follow, and beat up women wearing veils?

And that those women will thus be forced more and more to stay at home due to the virulent anti-veil sentiment brewing outside?

That using the police’s guns to humiliate people does not to lead to a conversation, it only leads to pain and anger, and rightfully so?

Arguing that women wearing cloth around their bodies is a threat to national security and to secularism doesn’t make any sense and is completely counterproductive, unless your goal is to terrify Muslim women from going outside for fear of being attacked.

Do they not realize this road has been traveled before?

In Iran, for example, in 1935 a law was passed under the secularizing regime of Reza Shah that banned the veil. In the years that followed, police ripped the veils off of thousands of women, forcing many who previously took part in society to return to their homes for fear of being humiliated for their clothing.

Many families refused to allow women to leave the home without the veil, and the state reinforced this patriarchal control over women’s bodies by discriminating against and harassing them. The patriarchy and misogyny of the family found an unlikely ally in the secularist agenda of the state.

And amidst it all, women were the victims, targeted for how they dressed, their bodies made into ideological symbols.

The trauma of the forced un-veiling remained in the public memory for decades. And it is no coincidence that years later, when the Iranian Revolution triumphed and Imam Khomeini took power in the country, mandatory veiling was introduced.

Patriarchy and misogyny breed patriarchy and misogyny, and forced unveiling emboldens and strengthens the most patriarchal and conservative aspects of society. It also strengthens the most patriarchal, misogynistic segments of Muslim societies by proving them right about secularist and Western hypocrisy regarding freedom and human rights.

France’s burkini ban is not feminism. It is not secularism. It is laique fascism, an attack on women’s bodies and women’s right to choose what to wear, and an attack on all of us who value a free, diverse, and tolerant public sphere.

We have become a mob, cheering as police force women to undress.

This is France 2016. This is the reverse side of the forced veiling coin. And this is no less violent.

Alex Shams

Alex Shams is an Iranian-American journalist based in Bethlehem, Palestine and a PhD student of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Follow him on twitter @SeyyedReza.

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57 Responses

  1. silamcuz on August 25, 2016, 1:45 pm

    Excellently written, and timely article.

    One point of contention though

    This is France 2016. This is the reverse side of the forced veiling coin. And this is no less violent.

    Uhh what? This is 2016 phase of the same France that colonized Africa and Middle East and actively engaged in all sort of neocolonialism and imperialism in these lands from the 1600’s.

  2. eljay on August 25, 2016, 2:16 pm

    … France’s burkini ban is not feminism. It is not secularism. It is laique [lay] fascism, an attack on women’s bodies and women’s right to choose what to wear, and an attack on all of us who value a free, diverse, and tolerant public sphere. …

    I agree that it is an attack on women and on Muslims. But it’s not an attack on me.

    … We have become a mob, cheering as police force women to undress. …

    I’m not part of that mob.

    • Citizen on August 25, 2016, 6:48 pm

      Do U wear Speedos?

      • eljay on August 25, 2016, 9:17 pm

        || Citizen: Do U wear Speedos? ||


    • MHughes976 on August 25, 2016, 7:22 pm

      Like eljay I don’t feel victimised but I do feel at very least some dismay and embarrassment at seeing a part of Western society behave like this. An opprtunity for a degree of friendly interaction has been wantonly thrown away and action taken which is petty, ill-considered, vindictive and dangerous. I then see members of the French intellectual and political class resorting to absurdity – ‘national security!’ – in defending all this.

      • eljay on August 25, 2016, 9:18 pm

        || MHughes976: … I do feel at very least some dismay and embarrassment at seeing a part of Western society behave like this. An opprtunity for a degree of friendly interaction has been wantonly thrown away and action taken which is petty, ill-considered, vindictive and dangerous. … ||

        Yup. It’s thoroughly depressing.

  3. ritzl on August 25, 2016, 2:55 pm

    All the women in France who don’t like being told what to wear by the state should wear them as a fashion statement. Let the police sort it out.

    I can see them carding women for religion and arresting/publicly undressing only the Muslims.

    Who thinks up this shit?

    • amigo on August 25, 2016, 4:21 pm

      All the women in France who don’t like being told what to wear by the state should wear them as a fashion statement. Let the police sort it out.” Ritzl

      How about turning up the flames a tad and designing the burkini using the colours of the Palestinian flag.Scotland will be the first shipping destination. no more fines for the Celtic club.

      “Who thinks up this shit?”.

      Looks as if Israel is now teaching the french “crowd control ” with a slightly different twist.

      • Citizen on August 25, 2016, 6:50 pm

        Isn’t the Scot flag the same colors as the Israeli flag?

  4. strangefriend on August 25, 2016, 4:21 pm

    Iranian women wear hijabs, not veils. They have no face coverings. So, no, the Iranian regime didn’t institute forced veiling, just forced hijabs. That is bad enough, but let’s not just make crap up.

    • Stephen Shenfield on August 29, 2016, 10:02 am

      strangefriend: In the early years of Iran’s Islamist regime full veiling was compulsory. I recall this because a woman colleague of mine visited Tehran at that time for a conference and after her return wrote a letter explaining what wearing a chador felt like. The position that wearing a hijab is good enough was adopted later as the regime liberalized.

      Regarding burkinis, they could come in handy for many non-Moslem women (and some men, I suspect) who are deterred from swimming by self-consciousness about their non-standard appearance, e.g. because they are obese or have had to have a breast removed.

  5. Talkback on August 25, 2016, 5:58 pm

    French fashion fascists.

  6. Citizen on August 25, 2016, 6:51 pm

    Mmmm, was that in a footnote to The Camp Of The Saints? BTW, how many Middle East refugees has Switzerland taken in recently?

  7. Citizen on August 25, 2016, 6:58 pm

    Alton Towers bans men in Speedos

    How about pasty fat white women in thongs?

    • Mooser on August 25, 2016, 10:13 pm

      What I need is a bath-robe to put on when I come out of the water, one embroidered with “The Godfather of Schmaltz” across the back. I burn like cheap micro-wave popcorn in any kind of sun.

  8. Citizen on August 25, 2016, 7:02 pm

    Agatha Christie: Swimming in Lead Chains via @LilaWalleroo

  9. xanadou on August 25, 2016, 8:02 pm

    Sloppy writing.

    It would have been helpful to know if the woman was given a choice: strip or leave, or if she was prevented from leaving and forced to strip so that FOUR macho cops could have a photo of the idiotic incident.

    If she had elected to stay on the beach, then the law is definitely stupid and is currently reviewed by France’s courts of a higher instance, but pending further legal developments, it’s the law.

    However, if she was not offered a choice and prevented from leaving the beach, then France may likely have triggered another carnage to happen. Anybody taking bets how soon? (Bitter sarcasm).

  10. SamT on August 25, 2016, 8:41 pm

    Interestingly.. In what other country could one see armed police ordering a woman to undress??? Oh hum for democratic France.

    • Mooser on August 25, 2016, 9:30 pm

      Liberte’, Egalite’, Decolletage!

    • silamcuz on August 26, 2016, 11:11 am

      Being democratic just makes the entire thing even worse. It signify that a majority of the populace are willing accomplices of the state crimes.

  11. Ismail on August 25, 2016, 9:55 pm

    Look at those lunatic Catholics, imposing their squalid religion on us all. I’ll bet if this happened on a French beach, they’d be made to undress and clapped in handcuffs instantly.


    • ritzl on August 25, 2016, 11:59 pm

      Heh. Good one.

    • Kay24 on August 26, 2016, 8:15 am

      It is much easier to pick on anything Muslim these days.

    • Vikram on August 26, 2016, 2:35 pm

      Ismail, I think that you should reconsider the sort of language that you use in your comment. To describe the nuns in your link as “lunatic Catholics” and their religion as “squalid” is gratuitously
      offensive. Perhaps, you might consider expressing your self in a kinder manner in future. At the end of day, each person is deserving of dignity and respect.

      • ritzl on August 26, 2016, 4:06 pm

        Vikram, he was mocking the ugly thinking behind the burkini ban by showing how ugly it is when applied to another religion.

        By using the nuns this way he was actually holding them up as exemplars-of-purity-and-goodness in order to contrast the French hypocrisy and bigotry.

      • Eva Smagacz on August 26, 2016, 7:17 pm

        Ismail was being sarcastic

  12. michelle on August 25, 2016, 10:00 pm

    who didn’t see ‘this’ comming
    france the place where the government
    always ends up oppressing its people
    the place that made it unlawful to debate
    the details of ww2
    is now the shameful place that strips females
    does france strip the female children too
    can they be sued
    a dress code like no other
    G-d Bless

  13. Marnie on August 26, 2016, 12:26 am

    This photo is disturbing on so many levels –
    4 cops, 1 woman.
    Her crime – dressing as she saw fit for the beach.
    The gawkers – not one of them it seems having enough curiosity (besides staring) to ask those fascists what crime was happening.

    How could any government feel it’s their job enforce a dress code on a specific religious/ethnic group?

    If they feel this is needed, they best turn their attention to the ultra-orthodox and hassids in their midst. Are there any Amish in France? Krishnas? Fat people?

    Those men and women who feel it’s their job to liberate Muslim women from their oppressive garments can just FOFFS.

    Maybe its blowback from all the failed attempts to ‘liberate’ Muslims and show them how great democracy is (especially wrt to clothing!), like they tried in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sort of like, if we can’t force democratic values on them on their turf, we’ll do in on ours dammit.

    Or more simply, objectification of the female body, which apparently belongs to everyone except the female herself.

    I can imagine Trump and all his little Trumpets really digging this.

    • Amy1 on August 27, 2016, 4:35 am

      Your comment is spot on except Iraq isn’t an appropriate instance even though it was sold to the American public as such. Iraq was a fairly secular country where dress codes weren’t defined and imposed by the regime despite all its massive failings. Not that a woman’s clothes determine how liberated she is but even by the dubious standards of the western imperialist powers they were indeed liberated but since that was done without the charitable generosity that the US is ever willing to display they had to be liberated of their freedoms.

  14. Qualtrough on August 26, 2016, 1:58 am

    Playing right into the hands of fundamentalists. Bien joué france.

  15. MHughes976 on August 26, 2016, 10:39 am

    The bbc is telling us that the French Administative court has declared the ban illegal. Well done! However, at least one of the local horrors has declared that he will defy the court. Meanwhile an Ifop poll has support: neutrality: opposition to the ban = 64: 30: 6. A letter in the I, the ex-Independent, mentions how the writer was ordered out of a French pool for wearing shorts, an illustration of the French passion for rigorous enforcement of pointless rules.

  16. Mooser on August 26, 2016, 4:13 pm

    I look at it this way. No matter what a woman wears to the beach or the pool, it’s almost a guarantee she will take her shoes off.

  17. ritzl on August 26, 2016, 6:34 pm

    Je suis la burkini. :)

    • oldgeezer on August 26, 2016, 7:38 pm



      Where are all those wonderful world leaders marching arm in arm.

      Saw an interview with one of the French mayors this evening on bbc. It was gut turning. A true knuckle dragger trying to wrap his bigotry and racism (and misogny) into a concern for rights.

      The same news segment was an interview with a Muslim woman and her children. Clearly she was not a prisoner in her home but preferred to be wearing it.

    • Froggy on August 28, 2016, 2:23 pm

      You genius! I LOVE it.

      • echinococcus on August 28, 2016, 5:46 pm

        Je suis gobé d’une petite
        C’est une nana, c’est une nana, une Annamite
        Elle est vive elle est charmante
        C’est comm’ un z’oiseau qui chante

        J’l’appell’ ma p’tit’ bourgeoise
        Ma Burkini, ma Burkini, ma Burkinoise
        Y’en a d’autr’s qui m’font les doux yeux
        Mais c’est ell’ que j’aim’ le mieux.

  18. Eva Smagacz on August 26, 2016, 7:21 pm

    I think the ban is for an attire that is hiding neck. I doubt loose long tunic and a hat, a la seventies, or a modest dress of Jewish orthodox lady with a wig would get this sort of attention.

    • Kathleen on August 28, 2016, 6:32 pm

      You can be assured “a modest dress of Jewish orthodox lady” would not be required t-o strip. This would be considered anti-semitic” and it would be. This would make big news all over the world.

      This is absolutely “anti Muslim” and .feminist. Let those who want to cover up cover up. For heavens sake this is insane.

  19. Danaa on August 26, 2016, 8:07 pm

    Presumably if the Burkini is OK so is toplessness, I assume. Same thing, same feminist statement, just different approaches – bare less or bare more, each a feminist in thir own way, right?. Actually, come to think of it, the solution is obvious – make all beaches and pools in France Cloths Optional. let anyone wear or not what they wish. If people are offended they can go to another beach, or get their own private beach or pool.

    I see this whole issue as a storm in a teapot, and i don’t trust the feminist interpretation issuing morality rulings. I especially don’t like the fact that local controls and preferences are usurped in favor of something that may be more politically correct.

    So yes, may be cloths optional should be the norm everywhere. Which will no doubt result in a few sights for sore eyes, perhaps more offensive than the Birkini, depending on who chooses which option.

    In fact, there are interesting fashion statements one could make, such as a scarfed/veiled hat (to guard against the sun, of course) combined with a thong bikini a-la-brazil. There are many other interesting combinations i can think of, including topless with birkini pants that match a head-cover? a, the possibilities are endless. And no, I am not just mocking – some of the beach wear I imagine may well come to pass, since forcing people to change the way they view beach wear will likely result in counter-statements. Just you wait – I have every faith in the imagination of the french women (don’t know about the men. Must think about that some more).

    perhaps i am weak in the cultural-devout-religious empathy department, but i read that these birkinis started appearing only last year or so. No doubt as a radical statement, just like the hijab is for some.

    In case anyone wonders whether my reactionary values are limited to women who believe in coveralls, far from it. i am also all in support of the motion pending in Italy now that if gay marriage is legal then multi-spouse marriage should be legal as well (whether bigamy or polyandry – take your pick) . In fact, i seriously resented once having to divorce one husband just to marry another. I kind of liked them both, for different reasons, especially as they resided in different countries. with each offering excellent vistas, albeit, very varied ones. Come to think of it, I am not really sure my divorce from one was ever properly finalized (which is why I have to stay anonymous?).

    may be we should just make it a catch-all-you-can civilization, why not? one person’s sacred values is another’s sacrilege, so just legalize everything.

    • eljay on August 27, 2016, 9:25 am

      || Danaa: … In case anyone wonders whether my reactionary values are limited to women who believe in coveralls, far from it. i am also all in support of the motion pending in Italy now that if gay marriage is legal then multi-spouse marriage should be legal as well (whether bigamy or polyandry – take your pick) . … ||

      I have no problem with the idea of multi-spouse marriages between consenting adults as long as the necessary social and legal frameworks are in place to ensure that the needs of and the benefits owed to all spouses, children and ex-spouses are well-defined and protected.

    • MHughes976 on August 27, 2016, 12:48 pm

      Well, Danaa, you may be living up to your possible ancestor Danae/Dinah, who in both guises had relationships that led to trouble. You made me think. This sort of event does indeed lead to posturing and your sympathy with the idea of local control for local facilities is understsndable. I tend to see not charming local communities but pompous local autocrats, but perhaps that is hasty.
      However, I still think that the demand for secularist clothing was ill-considered. An opprtunity to show acceptance of Muslims in our midst was thrown away and tension needlessly raised. If the matter was seen as really rather trivial then police enforcement was inept. If it was a serious matter then huge international attention was only to be expected and improvised, slightly incredible explanations about feminism and national security were bound to backfire. What answer is there to the claim that secularism is showing itself as neurotic and controlling as religions have tended to be?
      I still think it was also vindictive and demeaning. There had been an IS claimed terrorist incident which killed masses of people but unpleasant and contemptuous treatment of people who practise Islam but have committed no crime is not logical, just an expression of a wish to do something nasty and symbolic, but not deserved, therefore vindictive.

      • Kathleen on August 29, 2016, 11:34 pm


  20. Teapot on August 27, 2016, 4:33 pm

    Meanwhile in Israel, they are more than happy to take advantage of the burkini controversy and paint themselves once again as the only true democracy in the middle east. Israel is all about freedom! Just ask any Palestinian…

  21. Froggy on August 28, 2016, 4:46 pm

    One would think that in a country like France, with all her achievement and her historic genius, the French could find something better to use to define Frenchness than what women choose to wear at the beach.

    We have shown ourselves to be shallow and trivial.

  22. Kathleen on August 28, 2016, 6:26 pm

    French police demanding Muslim woman to take off burkini seems criminal. Talk about the French being anti feminist. “Hey you lady strip” in France “you are required to show tits and ass” “breast and buttocks” if you want to be more proper.

    Next the French will be passing the “Pro show tits and ass legislation” What the hell.

    Leave people who want to cover up alone. Talk about anti choice. Who cares? Men addicted to getting their ya ya’s off by catching the skin show on the beach. Geez…

    • Mooser on August 28, 2016, 8:08 pm

      ‘Take it off, take it off, cried a voice from the bench…’

    • silamcuz on August 29, 2016, 11:18 pm

      the French being anti feminist

      The French has always been fervently anti-feminist, since the colonial times to the present.

      Read this highly enlightnening article that put into context the historical chain of events that led to the burkini ban in 2016.

      • Froggy on August 30, 2016, 9:19 am

        That feministing article has to be the most stupid, uninformed, brain-dead screed I’ve read in a long time.

        I don’t have the time to respond more thoroughly. The writer doesn’t have a clue.

      • silamcuz on August 30, 2016, 10:33 am


        That is a rather interesting response. I along with many of my acquaintances were quite impressed at the (geo)political acumen and historical relevance presented within it. I personally appreciated the structured and systematic breakdowns of why Islamophobia exist as it does in the West.

        May I ask why did you find so bad?

    • Froggy on August 30, 2016, 11:37 am


      This has nothing to do with ‘feminism’. The burkini ban is a misapplication of Laïcité, which is is a core concept in the French constitution.

      • silamcuz on August 30, 2016, 12:32 pm

        It has everything to do with feminism, since the Laicite in practice result in discrimination of Muslim women by restricting them of their choice of work as well as perpetuating a stigma against them as not being French enough.

        Muslim women, along with those from other faiths who are French citizens have the right to disagree with the concept of Laicite, and how it affects them. Stop acting like Laicite is something beyond criticism and amendment by the very people affected by it.

  23. silamcuz on August 30, 2016, 4:32 am

    It is beyond doubt that France is an embarrassingly Islamophobic country as proven by its recent enforcement of laws against the wearing of burkinis in public.

    However, laws themselves are just one facet of the manifestation of Islamophobia within society. How many of the women readers in MW, regardless of their religious affiliation or faith, would be comfortable with wearing a hijab-like head scarf, just for the hell of it, to the beach? Or to the office, or to go shopping?

    If the thought invokes a certain sensation of discomfort or even revulsion within you, ask yourself why so? Why are we conditioned to think that covering our head with a piece of cloth is so awful and bad, when billions of people used to do it just fine and are still happily doing it as part of their daily attire.

    What motivated these lawmakers, to wake up one day and decide to outlaw the physical covering of the one’s own head, using a hijab? Are those motivations restricted to just France, or can they also be found in other places, namely the US, Israel, Canada and other Western nations?

    • Froggy on August 30, 2016, 11:22 am

      silamcuz :: It is beyond doubt that France is an embarrassingly Islamophobic country as proven by its recent enforcement of laws against the wearing of burkinis in public.

      What enforcement? Those were local laws that banned the burkini and these laws were overturned by the French higher court, the Conseil d’Etat. The Conseil’s decision voids these ill-considered laws making the enforcing of them illegal under French law.

      Do try to keep up.

      The French tend to be uncomfortable with any public religious expression that goes beyond the wearing of a symbol, like small cross, a star of David, or something a Muslim might wear, on a chain. This includes the Jewish ultra-orthodox dress for men, kippas worn by the MO, a Sikh turban, along with hijabs and other forms of Islamic dress.

      Many of the French make a big distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere. In France religion is considered a private matter.

      I’m not claiming that there aren’t significant anti-Muslim attitudes amongst the French. I simply don’t know how much is truly anti-Muslim (against the religion itself), or people who feel uncomfortable seeing individuals who have chosen to live in France (or were born there) wearing this religious/tribal dress in the street.

      (Religious/tribal dress doesn’t bother me, but then I lived in New York for many years.)

      I will say that I find it a relief that religious expression is prohibited in French public schools. I got fed up with the overwelming religiosity that infested my children’s public schools when we lived in the US. There were times when the public square wasn’t any too pleasant either as we tried our best to avoid the in-your-face evangelism that springs up all over the place like a fungus.

      I would LOVE to wear a full burkini on one of those beaches where these women were harrassed. Anyone who would demand that I remove the burkini would be in for a real shock.

      Just for the hell of it.

      • silamcuz on August 31, 2016, 9:17 pm

        Let me ask you this, are French Muslims equally French as Catholics and Jews?

        If they are, shouldn’t they have the same rights of opinion towards religiosity and public display of faith as others? This is interesting because if you poll among French general population, trends emerge whereby those who object to Hijab or Burka or Turbans are almost exclusively white French, while the Muslim French are more inclusive and accepting of other people rights to dress in however manner they want. White French don’t even wear hijabs in the first place, so its convenient that its they who happen to be believe wearing it goes against the ideals of the nation.

        So the French society aversion to the burka or hijab is not something intrinsic to French culture or values, because the folks who wear burkas and hijabs are themselves French.

        As for wearing the burkini, I strongly suggest that you do it and perhaps submit an article on MW documenting your experiences and thoughts afterwards. Would be quite enlightening for many folks I am sure of it.

  24. mcohen. on September 1, 2016, 1:27 am

    french have had enough.history has a way of repeating itself.

    embrace the low hanging fruit.

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