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[align=left]SautiYetuPromoting women and girls rights and accurate cultural representation
The Purpose ofSauti Yetu
SAUTIS conceptualization was guided by
two main objectives: the first was to cre-
ate a space from which to articulate our
experiences as immigrant African women
in the west; and the second was to wrest
ourselves from the mold of stereotypical
assumptions into which its attendant
culture of hierarchy have cast us. SAUTI
strives to promote the rights of immi-
grant African women and girls and accu-
rate cultural representation. Given that
multiplicity of paradigms is crucial to plu-
ralism, it is important to provide space
for ideas that have not been accorded
visibility due to lack of representation.
As immigrant African feminists and
activists, we contend daily with the inter-
secting forces of sexism within our own
communities and racism in the larger
Western society. Our focus on these
issues has often isolated us from the
broader womens movement; that of
human rights. In addition, the insularity
and sexism within our own communities
have often prevented us from building
viable coalitions within and with exter-
nal issue based organizations. Immigrant
African women struggle for visibility and
voice within the broader feminist and
womens human rights movements. We
deplore the assumptions that patholo-
gize African women and families in the
western media and by general social
change organizations and movements.
We envision essays or articles that
examine womens multifaceted lives,
their relationships that include but are
not limited to them being immigrants,
African, and/or circumcised. SAUTI will
be a tool to provide factual and accurate
information about the lives and issues of
African women immigrants living in
Western countries. SAUTI will serve as
an online forum amongst and between
immigrant African women that include
but is not limited to gender-based vio-
lence, FC/FGC and migration.
Change from Within

Shifting Notions about Female Circumcision/Female Genital
Cutting among African Immigrants Living in the West

Welcome to SAUTI YETU! (Our
Voices), a newsletter produced
by Sauti Yetu Center for

African Women. In this issue, we continue
to explore the topic of female
circumcision/female genital cutting (FC/FGC)
but with an attempt to understand how the
communities that practice it might also
begin to abandon it. As the articles here
demonstrate, FGC is not always perceived
by circumcised women and their communities as harmful but rather as a benefit and
even a source of power for women. That
simple and unexpected conceptualization
poses significant challenges to advocates
who seek to protect girls and young women
from FGC on similar grounds of empower

ing them and ensuring their well-being. Yet
some women do choose to forego the practice how do they reach their decision?

The two articles here are a departure
from the usual literature on FGC in that they
attempt to understand how women in communities that practice FGC conceptualize it
and how their attitudes and ideas about it
might be changing. Asma Abdel-Halims
article explores these changing attitudes in
light of a group of Sudanese womens experiences as they resettle and build new lives
in the U.S. Through her conversations with
Hajja Fatma, a Sudanese woman living with
her daughter and son-in-law, Abdel-Halim is
able to locate changing ideas about FGC in

Cont. on page 2

*Areas in Europe, North America and other countries where immigrant Africans have settled.


Change from Within Cont. from page 1

the context of the rupture and flow of a
womans life in exile: the importance of culture as a means of preserving the fabric of
society, the reality of adapting culture and
social framework to new cultural and social
contexts, the changing authority of women

such as mothers-in-law in the adopted
country, and the sense of isolation of
being a stranger in a strange land even as
home and homeland are redefined.
What Abdel-Halims conversations with Hajja
Fatma demonstrate is the way in which the
continuation or termination of the practice
of FGC intersects with this complex mix of
experiences and responses. It is only when
Hajja Fatma learns that a girl who undergoes FGC in the U.S. might feel an isolation
akin to her own as a foreigner that she
begins to question the value of continuing
the practice.
Just as attitudes can change about the
value of preserving certain cultural, social or
religious practices, so can attitudes about
what those practices should entail in the

first place. Sara Johnsdottir describes how
Somalis living in Sweden have turned to
Islamic textual sources to understand
whether and to what extent female circumcision is required in Islam. The sources they
refer to not only do not require female circumcision but instruct those who do practice it to do so in its minimal form. How
this is interpreted by the community that
Johnsdottir studies varies among her informants; nevertheless, what is interesting is that
religious arguments are presented not to
defend FGC but to minimize it. In some
cases, the women she has interviewed cite
references to Islamic textual sources to
defend their choice to eschew circumcision
for their daughters altogether.

Together these articles suggest that cultural and religious understandings need not
necessarily be obstacles to ending FGC but
may well provide the means for the affected
communities to question the need to continue the practice. By discussing the basis for
FGC and scrutinizing the rationale for its

practice, African immigrant women and
their communities can take ownership of
the issue and begin to address it. It is only
when communities themselves particularly
women become actively involved that
harmful practices like FGC can be realistically

Let Us Know!

We invite all editorials, letters to the
editor, and announcements of events.
We are currently looking for studies,
research and articles on FC/FGC in the
western countries for future issues of
Sauti Yetu.

Please send us your comments on Sauti
Yetu -what you like, what you would
like to see more oflet us know!


The Effect of Immigration

Sudanese Womens Attitudes towards

What would women
say about female circumcision (FC) if
they were not attacked by another
culture, if they did not have to
defend their culture and if they
felt comfortable and confident
talking about it? I wanted to find
out the answer so I set out to talk
to Sudanese immigrant women.
Being a Sudanese who speaks the
same language as these women
and living most of my life in the
same culture I found out that they
were more than willing to talk
openly about FC. In the traditional setting of wanasa (long friendly
chats) we sat with a tape recorder,
sipping tea and coffee and treating ourselves to Sudanese pastries,
and talked for hours.
For the purposes of this research I
formed three focus groups according to
age. The first group was of older women
who are here with husbands or sons and
daughters; they were all over the age of
55. The second group comprised married
women of ages 29-49; the third group
consisted of young single women 23-29
years old. I held several sessions with each
group and a final session that brought the
three groups together. I chose one woman
from each group to conduct in-depth interviews that raised more questions for the
group sessions. In this short article I will
summarize salient points made by the older
womens group, specifically my interview
with Hajja Fatma.

Female Circumcision

By Asma Abdel Halim

Hajja Fatma is the most isolated of the
women participating because she does not
speak English and depends on others to
communicate with Americans. Therefore, she
has experienced the most dramatic change
of life. She has lost the independence,
friends, relatives and sense of belonging she
had back in Sudan with little compensation
in this far away land. Although a pious
woman who follows her religious duties
carefully and with awareness, she is a faithful
follower of Sudanese customs even when
they clearly clash with religion. She believes
in keeping the fabric of society in tact.

Hajja Fatma always talks about isolation in a far away land. This feeling of iso

lation has greatly affected her
attitude towards Sudanese traditions. When asked whether she
thought FC should continue to be
practiced her first answer was
yes, it is our mothers `ada [custom] and girls would be better off
circumcised. When I pointed out
the isolation that the girls
might suffer in this country if they
were circumcised, her countenance changed and she waived
her arms in the air, Not good,
worst thing in the world is to be
isolated, being a ghareeb
[stranger or foreigner] is a painful
experience, maybe they are better
off without it. But Hajja Fatma
continued to be half-hearted
about the practice until late in our

Although Hajja lives with her daughter
and family she gives herself the status of a
mother-in-law, perhaps to wield the power
attached to a mother-in-law regarding FC.
A man who can stand up to his own mother may not be able to stand up to his
mother-in-law. But as Hajja Fatma noted,
times are changing, and in-laws are interacting and socializing more in younger
generations. Such daily interaction is diminishing older womens power within the
family. The barriers are somewhat relaxed
and in-laws can actually debate and disagree openly. However grandmothers still
enjoyed immunity from transgression by
other family members.

Cont. on page 4


The effect of Immigration Cont. from page 3

Hajja believes in circumcision because
of a sense of `aib (shame, dishonor); `aib is
a stigma that follows uncircumcised
women. Zineb El Ouardighi conveys a valuable articulation by Guessous of the sense
of hchouma (shame) in the Moroccan society, which I find to be identical to the sense
of `aib in the Sudanese society:

Hchouma (shame) conditions and permeates the world of female sexuality to
such an extent that women simply cannot
make decisions without analyzing them in
terms of shame. Shame is seen as one of
the key values of Muslim society. The
woman, therefore, has no right over her
body and is prohibited from even thinking
that it is her own. Furthermore, she must
take good care of this precious merchandise only in view of attracting a good husband (El-Ouardighi 1997).

The concept of `aib is a social construct; the social group redefines from time
to time what constitutes shame and dishonor. Hajja was afraid of the society around
her. In America, the society around her and
the younger Sudanese women are against
FC. One of the highlights in this learning
through wanasa was the discovery by Hajja
Fatma that one of her favorite young
Sudanese women, who seemed to say the
right things, is uncircumcised. Hajja Fatma
had to revise statements such as an air-
headed woman is usually ghalfa; and
havent you heard people calling each other
names such as wad or bit alghalfa [son or
daughter of uncircumcised woman]? That
polite uncircumcised young woman is an
example of how circumcision has nothing
to do with maturity or promiscuity.

Hajja described resistance to circumcision as a moda (fashion or fad) and a
desire to leave the girls sakit (with nothing
or for nothing). With the word sakit, she
flung her arms in the air as if scattering
something that could not be retrieved.

What would people say about us? They
will say that we are a low caste and unrespectable. Our daughters will be called
ghalfa [uncircumcised]. Identity and
belonging to the group, whether it is an
ethnic group or a peer group, dictates certain practices that become part of the life
of the group and may be perpetuated for
generations even when those practices
cease to make sense (Rushwan 1982).

Hajja Fatma does not just express her
own opinion about FC, she volunteers a
mans point of view. She stresses that
Sudanese men want to keep the tradition.
Let me tell you, they wanted us to re-circumcise after each birth, or if we did not
give birth, every three or four months.
Hajja entertains a certain image of a man,
one who wants to show his virility and
does not accept an uncircumcised woman
who is an unsealed and unstamped product. Without circumcision there is no
guarantee of virginity.

I asked Hajja what women were getting
in return for being sealed and stamped
through FC. They get respect. We ruled our
homes and demanded that husbands be
faithful to us. The pains of circumcision and
recircumcision are endured largely to provide
sexual pleasure for husbands. A recent study
of two neighborhoods in Omdurman area in
Sudan confirmed that a majority of men still
prefer circumcision and when the state of
circumcision is infibulation, they also preferred recircumcision (Abdel Mageed et al
2000). Women negotiated their position as
decision makers and recipients of husbands
wealth through adhering to husbands wishes. Hajja Fatma said that men support circumcision because traditionally no man
should refuse such self denial by a woman
who seeks his satisfaction.

Some of the statements that Hajja
Fatma and her group made about uncircumcised women were amusing and sur

prising. They were surprising because they
are the very same statements made by
uncircumcised women about circumcised
women. Each group thinks of the other as
smelling and as providing no sexual satisfaction to men and that, sexually dissatisfied men seek satisfaction by sodomizing
women. Hajja Fatma and three women in
her group insisted that uncircumcised
women had a peculiar smell. The smell of
an uncircumcised woman is stifling, said
Hajja. Although Hajja Fatma thought that
hygiene alone was not enough to eliminate
odors, she acknowledged that lack of
hygiene was a secondary source of smell.
Use of toilet paper instead of water was
cited as a reason for adding to the smell.

A surprising finding in this study is how
women of different cultures make assumptions about each others sexuality. Lightfoot-
Klein (1989) imagined (I say imagined for
she produced no support for her claim) that
men in Sudan were sodomizing their wives
because it was extremely difficult if not
impossible to penetrate an infibulation, she
also did not explain why was there a high
fertility rate in the Sudan given that men
were not able to penetrate women.

The same assumption of sodomy is
made by Nana, a member of this group.
She conveyed what she saw on the Playboy
television channel. Men do nothing but
sodomize women, that is because at the
front women are so wide open, for lack of
circumcision. Men look for sexual pleasure
in tight genitalia; that is why in this country
they sodomize women. Sodomy is a sin and
a crime in our society and no man dares to
approach his wife that way, because
women provide the desired tightness
through circumcision. In both cases, for
circumcised and uncircumcised women,
what constitutes sexual desire and pleasure,
and practices associated with that pleasure,
are imagined rather than researched.

SautiYetu 5

Some of the statements that Hajja Fatma and her group made about
uncircumcised women were amusing and surprising. They were
surprising because they are the very same statements made by
uncircumcised women about circumcised women.

There was a gradual change in Hajja
Fatmas beliefs about circumcision. The
lengthy wanasa sessions we held were fruitful. As younger women told her about the
problems they encountered at childbirth and
other times, such as physical examinations,
she reflected more and more on whether
circumcision was needed in America, rather
than whether it was needed at all. Her initial
reaction was that childbirth had never been
an easy task for women, yet when the harm
sustained by infibulated women is compared
to the lesser pains of uncircumcised women,
such harm stood out; Hajja Fatma could not
deny it. In Sudan, many health professionals
are acquainted with FC. Lack of such
acquaintance in America made FC a real
health hazard. Such facts caused Hajja
Fatma to think about FC, and the `aib or
shame factor diminished when compared to
the life-threatening factors.

Hajja Fatma kept going back and forth
with her thoughts. She conceded that girls
were not benefiting from FC in America,
yet she insisted that being ghalfa is `aib.
She said she never had to sort out traditions to see what was in them for her.
Things were done because they should be
done. The concept of `aib seemed to be
changing among the immigrant community. Hajja Fatma was not comfortable with
the fading of such a powerful concept that
deterred people from transgressing social
norms. The host culture provides new
instances of `aib. She continued to look for
sources of `aib to protect girls. For example,
she thought that the night clubs and week

end parties, if not made a source of `aib,
would bring much grief to the parents.

Hajja Fatma entertained some change
of mind about having circumcision done in
America or to girls who might end up living
in other countries. She said she still believes
in the value of FC as a way for women to
value themselves and make demands on
men. She conceded that if FC becomes
harmful in America, and would lead to jailing parents, then no real value would be
gained from it.

Exchanges through wanasa revealed
many situations that Hajja Fatma has not
thought about. The experience of being
uprooted kept Hajja Fatma consumed by
nostalgia until the conversations about FC
caused her to look into the present conditions that her daughter and granddaughters
live in. She found it necessary to convey her
attitude and think about her new life rather
than wait to go back home and continue
the old one. One of her statements is memorable: During the past weeks I talked to
some people who came back from Sudan;
life there isnt what it used to be either.
Here or there I have to think things over.

Works cited

Abdel Mageed, Ahmed M; El Balah A.
Suliman, and Dawood M. Kawther. 2000.
Recircumcision; the hidden devil of female
genital mutilation-case study on the perception, attitudes and practices of Sudanese
women. The Ahfad Journal 17 (1): 22-32.

El Ouardighi, Zineb. Sexuality and
Shame: A Moroccan Bestseller. WIN:

Womens International Net.
in3d.htm accessed March 28, 2006.

Lightfoot-Klein, Hanny. 1989. The
Sexual Experience and Marital Adjustment
of Genitally Circumcised and Infibulated
Females in the Sudan. The Journal of Sex
Research 26(3): 375-392.

Rushwan, Hamid; Carry Slot, Asma Al-
Dareer and Nadia Bushra. 1983. Female
Circumcision in the Sudan: Prevalence,
Complications, Attitudes, and Change: a
Report of a Study Conducted by the Faculty
of Medicine, University of Khartoum,
Sudan, 1977-1982. Khartoum: University
of Khartoum.

1 Dr. Hamid Elbashir, a Sudanese sociologist who works with UNICEF, conveyed a
funny poem by a Western Sudanese
woman who was praising the American
president Reagan for sending aid during
the draught that hit the region in the
1980s. She praised the president for the
millet and the powdered milk that did not
come from the usual places that she was
used to. She apologized that she did not
know his tribe but expressed her biggest
fear and hoped that it was not true of him,
namely that his mother was uncircumcised.

Editorial Committee

Asma Abdel Halim
Crista Johnson
Sara Johnsotore
Asma Maureen Donahue
Zeinab Eyega



Changing Attitudes

Islamic Teachings on Female Circumcision
among Somalis in Sweden

By Sara Johnsdotter

Even though societies that practice
female circumcision consist of
Muslims, Christians, Jews and

groups with non-scriptural religions, western societies tend to associate it with Islam.
This association is further emphasized by
the fact that the immigrant groups whose
young girls are classified by western societies as being at risk of female circumcision are generally Muslim. Somalis, many
of whom fled a civil war at home in the
1990s, are among those immigrants most
strongly associated with female circumcision. Living in exile in the U.S., Canada,
Western Europe and Australia, they evoke
fear in host countries that they maintain
this harmful practice.

My study focuses on how Somalis liv

ing in Sweden view female genital cutting.
Contrary to the assumptions described
above, I found a prevailing dissociation
among my informants from harsher
forms of female circumcision. This
position, especially among
women, is explained as having
its roots in a return to
Islamic textual sources
during their exile

abroad. My informants
refer to the Quran
and the hadiths when

they convey their views of the various
forms of female circumcision. Therefore, a
brief introduction of some key Islamic textual sources will be made here.

Somali Muslims belong to the Shafii
law school, which is one of the two Islamic
law schools (out of five) that regards
female circumcision as required. The form
recommended is a mild type known as
sunna circumcision (Type I). It is a paradox,
however, that in many parts of the Muslim
world where the Shafii law school dominates, female circumcision is non-existent.
In addition, in Somalia most parents opt for
pharaonic circumcision (Type III), the most
extensive form of female circumcision.

Female circumcision is not mentioned
in the Quran. However, it is mentioned in
a few hadiths. Hadiths are the sayings and
deeds of the Prophet Muhammed as nar

rated by his companions. Islamic scholars
rank the strength or weakness of a hadith
based on the strength and reliability of the
chain of its transmission leading back to
the Prophet. The authenticity and
strength of a hadith is also determined
through a rigorous process of Islamic scholarship. Most of the Somalis I know refer to
a certain hadith in which the Prophet
speaks to a woman who is on her way to
perform a circumcision. The Prophet then
says, in one of many possible translations
into English: Do not overdo it, because it
[the clitoris] is a good fortune for the
spouse and a delight to her. This hadith
can naturally be interpreted in various
ways: that the Prophet found a milder form
of circumcision acceptable (or even perhaps
recommended); or that the Prophet dissociated himself from the practice.

The distinction between whether a
practice is merely acceptable in Islam or is
actively recommended is significant.
Islamic law involves five categories according to which all human actions can be classified: 1) required and commanded; 2) recommended; 3) permitted; 4) disapproved;
and 5) forbidden. The second category,
which includes acts that are deemed to be
recommended, is called sunna in Arabic.
This is the main reason why some Somalis
merge the two concepts of sunna-classified
acts and sunna circumcision, thereby con



It seems many Swedish Somalis are in favour of a mild sunna
circumcision as a matter of principle, and they have no problem
voicing support for it. At the same time, they use religious
argumentation to defend the fact that they will not have their own

daughters circumcised in any way.

cluding that sunna circumcision of girls is a
religiously recommended act.

Sunna is a rather fuzzy concept, as
demonstrated in the following exchange,
since it includes several closely allied but
still separate meanings:

Interviewer: Are you for or against sunna
Woman: Its good. They just take a little
blood. They neither cut nor stitch anything.
Interviewer: Why is sunna good?
Woman: My daughter will not have to do
sunna. I shall let her be. But sunna is our
religion. The boys have to be circumcised a
little. You do it to purify. You dont have to
do sunna, but its good if you do it.

Man: You know what sunna is? Its a supplement to the Quran. If you want to come
closer to God, you can do this little extra
and if you dont, there is no punishment. []
Some [religious people] say that you can do a
symbolic sunna circumcision, a minor bleeding in clitoris. Others say that you dont
have to do it, that it is not requested in Islam.

On the one hand this woman and
man let sunna refer to what is physically
done to a girl during a sunna circumcision;
on the other hand they let the word
sunna refer to a religious concept of what
is recommended.

Most women spontaneously used the
descriptive term (what is done to girls) when
asked about sunna circumcision. Most men
chose to talk about sunna circumcision in a
normative perspective (what may and must
not be done to girls). Several interviewees
made a connection between the concepts
involving the physical sunna circumcision
and the religious sunna concept.

When asked to describe what a sunna
circumcision is, both mild and more extensive forms were described by the women:
They just pinch a little, to make it [clitoris]
bleed, Just a little. Not even half of clitoris, They cut a little in clitoris and then
stitch it together only up there, and no
sewing to cover the vagina.

The men, possibly because they in
general are kept out from the sphere of
female genitals, preferred to describe the
sunna circumcision in normative terms:
Female circumcision is acceptable if you
dont harm your daughter in any way. No
cutting away any parts, no stitching. Just a
little bleeding, nothing beyond that. A
sheikh stated that Its about bringing
about a little bleeding, but no cutting
whatsoever. It is absolutely out of the question. Its inherent in the definition of

Most western laws do not discriminate
between milder and harsher forms of
female circumcision. This distinction is cen

tral among Swedish Somalis. A man
describes it this way:
Man: Im clearly opposed to pharaonic circumcision. But Im in favour of sunna circumcision. Firstly, this sunna type of circumcision is not harmful its just a little
bleeding. It doesnt harm in any way.
Secondly, its lawful according to Islam, its
sunna, and I want to follow sunna.
Interviewer: Isnt there a risk that people
say pharaonic circumcision is forbidden,
but sunna circumcision is good and then
more is done to the girl than just the
Man: Possibly before people were
informed. But now I think both parents
and many children know that it is forbidden to cut anything at all.

Several interviewees stated that a mild
sunna circumcision (a tiny bleeding, no
removal of tissue) is acceptable according
to Islam, however not required. It seems
many Swedish Somalis are in favour of a
mild sunna circumcision as a matter of
principle, and they have no problem voicing support for it. At the same time, they
use religious argumentation to defend the
fact that they will not have their own
daughters circumcised in any way. A few
examples of womens voices:
Woman: You can choose yourself. Its not

Cont. on page 8


Changing Attitudes Cont. from page 7

in the Quran, so its not anything you have
to do. If you want to you can do it, but
you can let it be as well. Its up to every
person if it should be done.
Interviewer: Would you consider doing it to
your girls?
Woman: No, no I want to pass this up
completely. I dont want them to be
touched in any way.

2nd Woman: I dont want anything to happen to her, if I get a daughter. You dont
have to. Islam says you can take a tiny little
part or leave it, you dont have to. I wont.

The opposition to pharaonic circumcision was strong among the Somalis participating in this study. However, when it
comes to sunna circumcision the attitudes
were more complex, but also more ambivalent. This may be understood as a reflection of the fact that there is poor support
for a complete ban on all forms of female
circumcision when it comes to interpreting
Islamic textual sources. Most informants
agreed on the possibility to abandon all
forms of circumcision, and they claimed
that this is what they have decided to do
themselves. On the other hand, most
informants were unwilling to repudiate the
mildest form, a symbolic sunna circumcision, as they find it acceptable from an
Islamic perspective.

The assumption made here, that
Swedish Somalis in general have reassessed
this practice, is supported by the fact that
we have not even one case of female circumcision documented among Swedish
Somalis (Sweden issued a law banning
female circumcision as early as in 1982).
One may ask, why would Somalis in
Sweden have changed their minds so suddenly and become antagonists of a practice
they had previously advocated? This sim-

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plistic view implies that practising female
circumcision in Somalia means favouring all
aspects of it. Likewise, it implies that
refraining from the practice in Sweden
means disliking all aspects of it. In reality,
peoples views are much more complex and
ambivalent. A more balanced understanding can account for the feelings of relief
experienced by Somalis at the possibility of
not having to expose ones daughter to
female circumcision, and also for feelings
of fear about the negative connotations of
raising an uncircumcised daughter. The key
argument here is that the decision to not
have ones daughters circumcised can be
defended using references to Islamic textual sources.

In exile the naturalness of the practice of female circumcision becomes questionable. Two strong motives for female circumcision in Somalia lose their significance:
the earlier fear of social criticism for deviation and the demand for circumcision of
girls for marriageability. In Sweden, young
Somali girls would be the ones deviating
from their peers if they were circumcised.
Their mothers hope that one day they can

marry Somalis who have grown up in
Western countries and have a new view of
female circumcision. Among Swedish
Somalis there is a general support for the
enactment of Swedish legislation against
female circumcision, even though some
critics react against the cultural imperialism
inherent in a law directed towards a specific group of immigrants. Indeed, many
informants express a deep fear of Swedish
authorities and are well aware of the right
of the society to take over the custody of
their children by force. However, the most
important reason stated for individuals
decisions to abandon this Somali traditional
practice focus on religious aspects.


Johnsdotter, S (2002). Created by God:
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Johnsdotter, S (2003). Somali Women in
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