14.11.2016

The left and feminism, contemporary landmarks

The article looks at landmark events in recent years that have reactivated an evaluation of the encounter between the various lefts in the political spectrum and the increasingly plural feminisms.

Photo: iStock

As part of the current debates on the Left, it is useful to re-examine the intersection between the Left and feminism from a contemporary perspective. Given the vastness of the subject, one means of access is to briefly review some landmarks of recent years, which illustrate the ever more frequent encounters and disagreements between the Left and feminism. From Latin America to Europe and the Middle East, this problematical yet also fruitful relationship has its own tensions and challenges both the political boundaries, as well as those concerning identity, of those who are ready to participate in a dialogue and pursue the task of formulating projects that confront inequalities in all their multiple forms.

Even today it seems impossible to talk of the relationship between the Left and feminism without relapsing into the romantic imaginary and the shadows of misunderstanding. These metaphors were forged during the 1970s and 1980s, when such debates around ill-matched marriages or unhappy courtships that the Left, and especially the Marxist Left, and feminism had pursued throughout the twentieth century were more intense. Such disagreements came from afar, with iconic scenes such as Vladimir I. Lenin scolding Clara Zetkin for her supposed ravings on free love. Or Alexandra Kollontai crying out for a new morality and a new "woman", on front of the distrustful look of her Bolshevik comrades. And all of this within the paradoxical scenario of a revolution which advanced the timetable of women's rights by a century, only to delay it soon after, when the heat of Stalinism would dismantle most of the advances made in the years 1917-1930.

Although the disagreement is a constant, the same is not true of the identity of those who represent the supposedly incompatible duo. Increasingly we speak in the plural, of lefts and feminisms. Left social-democrat, Marxist, anarchist, radical, populist, revolutionary, popular or anticapitalist on the one hand. Postfeminism, popular feminism, lesbofeminism, queer feminism, transfeminism, postcolonial feminism, ecofeminism on the other. And this, without either of the lists being exhaustive, because we are faced with terms whose names are changing even as we write, at the dizzying pace of social networks and the slower, but in no way less active one, of concrete political practices.

We speak in the plural, of lefts and feminisms [...], faced with terms whose names are changing even as we write, at the dizzying pace of social networks and the slower [...] concrete political practices

Of course, in the vast field of politics there are those who continue to insist on these whenever the two collide, such as, for example, anarchist and socialist feminisms or the antipatriarchal Left. But among the feminists there are also some who, long ago, disappointedly abandoned dialogue with a Left which was recurrently misogynistic, deaf and patriarchal. This article would never end if we reviewed every one of these experiences, which are also occurring in different parts of the globe, and with specific local factors which are always difficult to assess at long distance, since the voices are distributed unequally in the overwhelming polyphony of the media and social networks.

However, we can give an account of some resonant landmarks that in recent years have reactivated the evaluation of the encounter (and the disagreement) between these lefts and these increasingly plural feminisms. One antecedent, without any doubt, is the self-confidence with which the then President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, described himself on various occasions as a convinced feminist. The leader of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution was betting on a socialism for the new century, which, among other virtues, would be immediately feminist. With this inspiration, he did not hesitate in repeating this slogan at the meeting of presidents at the World Social Forum (2009) and asking a visibly uncomfortable Rafael Correa, now President of Ecuador, if he was also a feminist. Chávez's obvious conviction, which identified feminism with socialism without disagreements or disharmonies, was met with forced assent from Correa, who bit his lip and fanned himself before a fervent public [1].

Some years later, that response from between Correa's gritted teeth was transformed into a grandiose stance. In 2013, at the debate on changes to abortion law, in opposition to the assembly members of his party, the Country Alliance, Correa threatened to resign if these went beyond legalization of pregnancies caused by rape of women with mental disabilities. The illusion that the "Citizen's Revolution" had awoken into a part of feminism was shattered when the President could be heard to say during an act of government at the end of that same year, that in Ecuador the "feminist movement for equality of rights," would be respected, but not the "most dangerous" end of a "gender ideology" that would fight for absolute gender freedom and would have no "academic" pretext. Five minutes of video are sufficient to witness the agenda of the most classic anti-feminist and homophobic catechism, including the oft-repeated warning that this "is being taught to children and young people" and destroying the "conventional family" [2].

These questions concern neither the Left nor the Right, but are rather "moralities" that are far from the central themes of economics and politics.

Anticipating the deluge of criticism which would brand him at the very least a caveman, the President seems to be responding here to the mischievous Chávez, who is already dead: these questions concern neither the Left nor the Right, but are rather "moralities" that are far from the central themes of economics and politics. In spite of this speech, in both 2013 and 2015 Correa had meetings with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans) organizations in which certain commitments were made on issues of violence, health, education and citizenship [3].

In addition to the quagmire provoked among his own party supporters and joyful recognition from Catholic and ultra-Catholic groups, these quotations divided both the feminist and LGBT sectors included in the aforesaid revolution, and those that maintained a critical distance. But, above all, they revealed the limits in the construction of a new citizenship in which historical feminist claims, now redefined as an unacceptable fundamentalism, would be disregarded and abrogated in government speeches and actions. Here is just one example of this: the work of the National Intersector Strategy for Family Planning and Prevention of Adolescent Pregnancy (ENIPLA) was transferred from the ministries to the executive branch and was redefined according to the design of the physician Mónica Hernández, recognized for her proximity to the more traditional Catholic sectors [4].

At stake, at every step, is the very definition of that feminism [...], just as it is for gender.

Beyond local national characteristics, this landmark illustrates that the legitimate participation of feminism in a revolution that is recognized as being to the left of the hegemonic world order is not under discussion. However, what is at stake, at every step, is the very definition of that feminism. There is in fact a permanent struggle for the limits of a term more typical of the second part of the twentieth century, just as there is for gender. Often, in politics as well as in the media and in some academic fields, "feminism" and "gender" are used as a kind of synonym for the term "woman". Stated thus, the "question of women" was a concern that the early people of the Left shared with their time, and even praised through the pens of their pioneering figures, beginning with Charles Fourier, who argued that the degree of emancipation of a society could be measured by the degree of emancipation of woman (exceptions need to be made here for certain examples, undoubtedly including Pierre-Joseph Proudhon himself, who reacted as though insulted by the female advance). The Communist Manifesto had already pronounced on the importance of the subject, and founding authors like Friedrich Engels and August Bebel both wrote books that were the undisputed texts speaking from the Left about "woman", her history and her future [5].

The redefinition of gender within feminism occurred as part of dialogue with Marxism

However, since those first formulations, more than a century of ink has been spilled [6]. Feminism turned that question into a political movement and a rich theoretical element that has now had a first, second and as much as a fourth wave. Numerous authors and polemicists have empowered theoretical and political processes that have led to the dismantling of the capital letter of the word "Woman", to exalt the vital experience of "women" and to deconstruct the very notion of "woman" as the subject of feminist emancipation. The concept of gender was forged in that transformation, and is therefore a highly dynamic term with a political capability that often hides its theoretical complexity. Although it comes from the medical sciences, its redefinition within feminism actually occurred as part of dialogue with Marxism. Traces of the first academic manifestations appear in the classic text "The trafficking of women. Notes on the Political Economy of Sex "(1975), in which Gayle Rubin rereads the key feminist figures of Western thought, including Marx and Engels [7], and ends up demanding a rewrite of a new Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that would retrieve the best of the Engelsian question. Shortly after, Donna Haraway wrote the "Gender" entry at the request of those who were editing a Marxist dictionary [8]. Again, the persistent theoretical and political bond between "Gender" and "Class" productively reappeared. And this is without mentioning the very heated debates between radical feminism, liberal feminism and socialist feminism of the 70s [9].

The notion of gender continues to circulate among the left as a synonym for "woman" [...] apparent in a kind of anti-feminism or neo-machismo

Despite the creative richness of this path of debate, the notion of gender continues to circulate among the left as a synonym for "woman", thanks in part to ignorance of feminist theoretical and political production. They are only distinguishable, as the Ecuadorian landmark demonstrates, when "feminism" appears as too intense or politicized a term, an exaggeration instead of which "woman" is preferred. And here the governments that are considered progressive coincide with the Catholic Church, and are very resistant to an "ideology of gender" that would permeate national legislations and education with its extremist proposals.

The bankruptcy of this synonym logic is particularly apparent in view of the intense unfolding of a kind of anti-feminism or fashionable neo-machismo, according to which men and women prefer to declare themselves as non-feminists, even though they claim to respect much of the ideology that feminism has brought to the agenda. On several occasions, consulted in interviews or as part of her spontaneous speech, former Argentine President Cristina Fernández has differentiated herself from feminist positions. As a variant of this distancing, in announcing in the Legislative Assembly a plan that benefited women, she referred to another directed towards men and explained: "lest they tell me that I am a bad feminist." [10]. This type of statement demonstrates that a battle has been won over the centrality of feminism and its demands in politics. However, there is a constant attempt to contain this advance, in order to limit feminism to its more moderate, commonplace and acceptable expressions. As a consequence, the agendas are limited and, in keeping with transnational organizations and financing, the central themes are usually those related to women as victims, and framed in the frankest punitivism. Thus, gender violence, trafficking and femicide lead government programs, but the freedom of women to choose in regard to their bodies and access to legal abortion are issues ignored or duly mediated by health and protection discourses. Here, the creativity and vitality of the heterogeneous feminist movement proves fundamental, on the one hand advancing through parliamentary lobbying, and on the other, in inventing networks of solidarity, relief and support for women who in any case abort [11].

The central themes are usually those related to women as victims… [over] ... the freedom of women to choose in regard to their bodies

Another recent landmark is the surprising conversion of the President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Evo Morales, who declared that he was a feminist who allowed himself sexist jokes [12] while extolling Woman in the abstract and the suffering and silencing of women in more concrete terms. Criticisms could not be hoped for. Bolivia has a diverse feminist movement, stretching from sectors committed to the government of the Movement to Socialism (majority) and associated with community feminism, to the active group of anarchist and autonomous feminists, whose most visible face is María Galindo from the Creative Women collective.

It is she who, faced with a homophobic declaration by a legislator of the majority, filed a complaint and succeeded in having the Vice President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, request her presence to conduct a personal dialogue between the two of them [13]. This exchange is interesting in many ways, not only for its content, but also for the way in which the two are willing to create a dialogue. Galindo takes the position that is expected of an "anti-state" activist (and is opposed, for example, to the demand of egalitarian marriage because it would imply assimilating to the bourgeois model of family). Garcia Linera, instead, chooses to embody the voice of a kind and patient listening state that answers all provocations with a silken gesture. Before each demand, he invites her to participate, to provide ideas, to govern: "Tell me what to do, Maria." He swiftly envelops the activist in the details of a demand that, coming from the mouth of a radical feminist, appear as minimum requirements: Galindo proposes a poll among parliamentarians on gender issues. Then, when she seems to demand more radical measures (effective sexual education in schools and the legalization of abortion), the Vice President points out the flagrant paradox: an anarchist asking for changes to the state. Finally, when the activist hardens and denounces the patronising logic of the government, he makes use of the aforementioned manoeuvre and, now firmly, demarcates acceptable feminism, one that will obviously be far from the "feminist neovanguardism" that Galindo would represent.

Much of this extensive dialogue is a delicate trap that illustrates another chapter in the relationship between the Left and feminism: the moment the Left governs. This analysis reactivates the old internal feminism within institutionalist and autonomous currents. Close to the state, it is possible to turn demands into properly funded legislation, programs and actions. But up close, it is also possible to see how the laws blur into the vicissitudes of regulations and meagre budgets. In turn, far from the state the demands seem more alive and uncontaminated. But their radiative power and reach over a greater area are reduced. Autonomous feminism knows how to sound the alert when the forces of the state apparatus impose a logic different and opposite to the horizontality, sisterhood and self-consciousness that the feminist experience demands for itself.

And, at the same time, from the state secretaryships and bureaus, many feminists gallantly maintain the minimal core of demands in the harsh scenarios of realpolitik. Somewhat paradoxically, this risky game of contact with the state probably offers better opportunities for feminism the more active and diverse it is as an autonomous movement, realizing that its capacity for self-reflection and work on itself is a substantial contribution to policy on all fronts.

Beyond their political positions, we should ask about the conditions in which women access positions of major power

The Galindo-García Linera dialogue illustrates certain edges of this game; in this case, her difficulties in acting in this context in contrast with her creative performances against situations of repression, and the paradox that it is the Vice President who is asking the activist to expand the borders of the possible within the state. Another very recent landmark is the debate that led to the formation of the government in Greece, following the victory of Syriza in early 2015, a leftist coalition with a promising flag of various colours. However, the photo of the brand-new cabinet could not be more masculine and immediately unleashed feminist tongues. Among them, those of the Forum of Feminist Politics of Spain, a country that for its own political process had its eyes on Greece, through an open letter to the new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, titled "Without women there is no democracy" [14]. This simply called for the incorporation of female ministers in the cabinet, and this concrete request was in turn criticized by those who, knowing the Greek process up close, pointed out the obvious masculine pre-eminence and provided the biographies of various women in basic positions in the new government [15]. And the good intentions of this external feminist criticism, unexpectedly aligned with the crude opposition attacks that faced the new government, aided in concealing these women by denouncing their supposed absence.

Further, other feminists also pointed to the weakness of regulations requiring parity or a predetermined quota: not every woman guarantees a feminist agenda, and perhaps not even one that makes a priority of women's rights. Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister), Condoleeza Rice (US Secretary of State), and Angela Merkel (current German Chancellor) are oft-quoted examples. However, beyond their political positions, we should further ask about the conditions in which women access positions of major power.

To this end, it is useful to remember how the publicity impact provoked by the so-called "pink government" of the socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2004, whose cabinet was made up of nine female and eight male ministers, collapsed when personal biographies were reviewed. A seasoned feminist eye could see that the celebrated majority of women depended on certain very objective and revealing data. All but one of the male ministers were married, while more than half of the females declared that they had no partner. At the same time, while the eight male ministers counted more than 20 sons and daughters between them, the nine female ministers had fewer than ten [16]. Leaving aside personal choices, this simple account showed that women's access to high-level public (and also private) positions did not seem to modify traditional family relationships or care practices. On the contrary, they remained more or less unchanged, since men did not seem to have a need to give up paternity or family life to participate in high political spheres [17].

This temporary quarrel, fuelled by the glamorous photograph of the women ministers on the cover of Vogue magazine, reminds us that, in the relationship between the Left and feminism, it is important not only to account for women accessing decision-making spaces, but, above all, under what terms they do it. In addition to how many and how it is necessary to observe who these women are. Diverse models have always been tried in order to understand, guide or moderate female participation.

The Latin American tour by Melike Yasar of MMLK revealed the details of an authentic recasting of woman within a very ancient patriarchal reality

Kurdish women recently gained much visibility as part of the Kurdistan liberation movement and its struggle against Islamic State. Their beautiful and exotic figures combined with the harsh image of weapons immediately seduced the international press. The Left redoubled their attention towards this revolutionary process that, in the midst of an unequal war, deployed creative strategies of self-government with the inclusion of women. However, one has to search a long time among the enthusiastic paragraphs dedicated to the combatants to understand that their structure as a movement does not follow the improvised logic the international media attributed to them.

The recent Latin American tour by Melike Yasar, representative of the Women's Movement for the Liberation of Kurdistan (MMLK), gave us a glimpse of the long process involved in building an organization that today shows the world an enviable number of self-government strategies in the area of Kobanê. Passing through the 30th National Women's Encounter, held in the Argentine city of Mar del Plata in October 2015, Yasar revealed the details of an authentic recasting of woman within a very ancient patriarchal reality. In addition to numerous rapes, tortures and deaths, each action brought about the slow construction of new subjectivities within the framework of a dual struggle: against the common enemy and against the patriarchal rationale insidiously embodied within the families themselves. In this sense, the Kurdish process reveals to a progressive West somewhat in awe of it, that a fruitful encounter between the Left and feminisms must remember the microphysics of each force, when confronted by the impact of the macroeconomic and supranational parameters. The day to day, everyday problems, the organization of care and the management of affections are part of an evolving laborious and very situated structure, although the telephoto lenses of the international media are proving late in identifying and globalizing these.

It cannot be denied that the world of affections, passions and emotions (a whole body of studies exists describing the finer details of these) has had a substantial presence in the politics of the last decade. Outbursts, annoyances, new sociability methods and mass demonstrations have ignited events such as the so-called "Arab Spring" or the 15-M movement in Spain. It was in the Spanish scenario that the relationship manifested its thorny side, if we are to judge the incident of the banner that announced "The revolution will be feminist or it will not be", which was apparently violently wrenched from the square. In the complex translation that the Podemos party is undergoing, from animated popular indignation into an electoral strategy with a true vocation for power, it seems that the maxim "Now is not the time" has returned to hover over the historical demands of feminism [18]. And despite auspicious novelties such as the document "Reorganizing the care system: a necessary condition for economic recovery and democratic advancement" [19], feminisms calling themselves radical or queer have noted the complacency and evident reproduction of the mandates of a white heterosexual, middle-class and professional feminism. Furthermore, despite the high participation of feminists in the ranks of the Podemos party, another part of feminism, represented by the historical Lidia Falcon, has preferred to add the Feminist Party to the ranks of the United Left. Here we must reflect not only on the historical difficulty of the classic Left in thinking outside the heterosexual framework, but also recall the brave struggles within feminism when it was still difficult to break this framework. The voices of lesbian feminism and the more recent contributions of trans and inter-sex identities have made it possible to redraw the contours and the very language of "unx sujetx" (a person) of feminist emancipation that goes beyond the classic definition of "woman."

Lesbian feminism and the more recent contributions of trans and inter-sex identities have made it possible to redraw the contours and the very language of "unx sujetx" (a person) of feminist emancipation

It might, with reason, be argued that redirecting feminist inner debates into a traditional policy is a complex task. And articulating these with emancipation strategies can be even more so, if one takes into account that not all feminism pursues revolutionary objectives or even deep political reform. On the one hand, there has always been feminism of a liberal type which can easily be included within egalitarian norms and the promotion of women in capitalism. But, at the same time, a commercial feminism is taking shape that adds to the panorama of diversity of the new century without discussing economic exploitation or other forms of oppression. In the world's media, pop singers stir up some piquant phrases, adverts for beauty and cleansing products flirt with the "new woman" and figures from the global star system yield to some good cause with studied prudence.

A much more precise analysis of this process can be found in the latest book by Nancy Fraser, who has long denounced the complicity between neoliberal capitalism and certain forms of feminism [20]. The development of a free market economy and the new forms of inequality and exploitation would in no way be damaged, but, rather, be unexpectedly favoured by certain aspects of the critique of sexism [21]. In the same vein, Judith Butler warned a few years ago, how the introduction of new rights for the LGBT community would involve redefinitions of the human that would become new modalities of exclusion of racial or cultural difference. Thus, a test applied to potential immigrants to Europe included the acceptance of male homosexuality as a way of demonstrating a capability of assimilation into a tolerant and democratic West [22].

The best of the intersection between feminisms and lefts occurs in the very process of meeting and disagreeing.

Each of these landmarks, briefly revisited here, reveals some keys to reflecting on the encounters and disagreements between the Left and the feminism: the struggle to define acceptable feminism, the difficulty in translating the classic feminist agenda into government actions, fashionable anti-feminism, the reactivation of the question of feminist autonomy in contact with governing leftists, the challenges in the deconstruction of the subject "woman" for feminist emancipation, ignorance and indifference to feminist theoretical and political production, preset quota traps, the importance of the processes of subjectification, etc.

The lefts would be advised to pay more attention to what feminist theories have to say about politics, subjectivity, and power, beyond the topics for which they are sometimes convened

They also demonstrate that dialogue will be inconclusive if we think in this instance of a moment of encounter between two already established identities. Rather, the best of the intersection between feminisms and lefts occurs in the very process of meeting and disagreeing. For this, the feminisms that wish to articulate themselves must combat their productive internal differences and also the vocation for power demanded by electoral games. In the meantime, the lefts that frequently approach feminism with a devouring attitude would be advised to pay more attention to what feminist theories have to say about politics, subjectivity, and power, beyond the specific topics for which they are sometimes convened. All this, as well as giving a real opportunity to rebuild new subjectivities that call into question the patriarchal vices that still beset them, and despite the voluntary declarations and the how multicoloured the banners are.

First published in Spanish by Nueva Sociedad, January-February 2016.

Notes

[1] “Hugo Chávez asks Rafael Correa if he is a feminist” on YouTube, 13/12/2014, https://youtube/4pnvaAgo-re

[2] “Ecuador: President Rafael Correa says ‘gender ideology’ threatens traditional families” on YouTube, 28/12/2013. https: youtube/4J7QMZXput00.

[3] On the meeting, see “LGBT collectives held meeting with President Rafael Correa” in Silueta X, 25/6/2015, https://siluetax.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/colectivos-lgbt-mantuvieron-reunion-con-el-presidente-rafael-correa/

[4] Irina Pertierra: “The 'Citizen's Revolution’ in Ecuador and Women's Rights” in Pikara, 29/04/15.

[5] A. Bebel: Woman in the past, present and future [1879], Fontamara, Barcelona, 1980; F. Engels:  The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State [1884], Claridad, Buenos Aires, 1941.

[6] This articles revisits certain sections of my participation on the panel “Debates and perspectives of Marxism over two centuries”, during the viii Days of History of the Left (Cedinci / Unsam): “Latin American Marxism. Traditions, debates and new perspectives from cultural and intellectual history”, Buenos Aires, 19 of November 2015.

[7] In Nueva Antropología vol. VIII No 30, 1986.

[8] D. Haraway: “Gender for a Marxist dictionary: the sexual politics of one word” in Science, cyborgs and women, Cátedra, Madrid, 1995.

[9] Among many others, see Zillah Eisenstein: “Some notes on the relationships of patriarchal capitalism” in Patriarchal Capitalism and Socialist Feminism, XXI Century, Mexico, DF, 1980; Heidi Hartmann: “The unhappy marriage between Marxism and feminism: towards a more progressive union” [1979] in Cuadernos del Sur No 6, 3-5/1987; Iris Young: “Marxism and feminism: beyond the unhappy marriage” [1981] in El Cielo por Asalto No 4, autumn/spring 1992.

[10] “The textual discourse of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner” in Parlamentario.com, 2/3/2015.

[11] For example, see the website Rescuers in Red, http://larevuelta.com.ar/tag/socorristas-en-red/

[12] Efe: “Evo, a feminist who tells sexist jokes” in El Deber, 17/2/2015.

[13] Dialogue broadcast by Radio Desire, the FM of Women Creating Peace. Later, Argentinian magazine Mu, from the La Vaca work cooperative, complete reproduction in “María Galindo interviewed Álvaro García Linera, vice president of Bolivia: 'Governing is an act of lying’”, 17/7/2014.

[14] Feminist Political Forum: “Without women there is no democracy. Open letter to Alexis Tsipras, new Prime Minister of Greece”, available at www.forumpoliticafeminista.org/?q=sin-mujeres-no-hay-democracia-carta-abierta-alexis-tsipras-nuevo-primer-ministro-de-grecia.

[15] B. Jaimen: “Open letter to the Feminist Political Forum on the open letter to Alexis Tsipras” in Info Grecia, s./f., http://info-grecia.com/2015/02/02/carta-abierta-al-forum-de-politica-feminista-sobre-su-carta-abierta-a-alexis-tsipras/

[16] Anna Freixas Farré: “Female and male ministers. Links and Care” in El País, 22/5/2004.

[17] Currently there are two councils in Spain governed by women – Barcelona, by Ada Colau, and Madrid, by Manuela Carmena – which deserve special attention for the challenges which they are encountering and the innovations which they are creating in respect to traditional politics.

[18] Pablo Castaño Tierno: “Podemos and feminism” in Pikara, 13/11/2014.

[19] María Pazos Morán and Bibiana Medialdea: ”Reorganising the city system: necessary condition for recovery and democratic advance”, Podemus Documents, s./f., available at estaticos.elmundo.es/documentos/2015/03/02/podemos.pdf.

[20] N. Fraser: Fortunes of feminism, Traficantes de Sueños, Madrid, 2015.

[21] N. Fraser: “How Feminism Became Capitalism’s Handmaiden – And How to Reclaim It” in The Guardian, 14/10/2013.

[22] Judith Butler: “Sexual Politics, Torture and Secular Time” in Frameworks of War: Lamented Lives, Paidós, Buenos Aires, 2010.

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