From Here & Back Again

By Jim Coufal

(Cazenovia, NY – Jan. 2012) Now don’t get your bloomers in a twist. I won’t be saying that women are a curiosity, and I certainly won’t advance any idea that women are somehow less than men. Heck, in ways they’re better. But I do have a curiosity that raises a question I think worth asking of women.

Why do you continue to support religion, which in most cases seeks to hold you back and to make (keep) you a second-class citizen? If this seems extreme, let me illustrate not with guile, but with fact.

There may have been earlier exposes but, for context, I’ll start with two powerful American abolitionist and suffrage voices. Matilda Joslyn Gage, in her masterful, well-researched “Women, Church and State” (1893) said, “the very foundation of that religion (Christianity) being the subordination of women in every relation of life,” and clearly and directly shows how this applied in categories such as canon law, witchcraft, wives, polygamy, teaching, work and others.

Her friend and compatriot, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, said, “The bible teaches that women brought sin and death into the world, that she precipitated the fall of the race, that she was arraigned before the judgment seat of Heaven, tried, condemned and sentenced.

“Marriage for her was to be a condition of bondage, maternity a period of suffering and anguish, and in silence and subjugation, she was to play the role of a dependent on man’s bounty for all her material wants, and for all the information she might desire … Here is the Bible position of woman briefly summed up.”

To simplify further, woman brought original sin to the world and must suffer for it.

How does this play out, and what about other religions and women? I will list a minimum of examples, but there are more in each case.

To start with the basic, “Of the woman came the beginning of sin, and through her we all die” (Eccles. 25:22).” This immediately put man in a position of superiority, which should not be unsurprising, since it was written by men.

It also meant, according to a loving god, that women must suffer.

“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow though shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16).

When it finally came, the church opposed the use of anesthesia to reduce the pain of suffering of childbirth; it was the wont of woman to suffer, said the old white men.

Since man had to suffer the introduction of sin by woman and women were made from man (ribs and all that), he was superior to her.

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husband in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-24).

Notice it says “everything,” and over many years this meant even rape, beatings, treatment as chattel, etc., and still does in many religions.

You might expect women to speak out against injustice but what else are they told?

“Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but woman being deceived was in the transgression” (I Tim. 2:11-14.)

Generations of women are to suffer because of the perceived sin of one woman, and they are to stay silent about it. And who is to say, except that it was written by old men, that Adam might not have taken the first bite of the apple? A question for all, but especially for men, is what would our world look like if it was written so that women were superior and how would you like it?

The bible also deals with the value of women.

In one case, where a homeowner has a male guest whom a crowd wishes to rape, the homeowner says, “Behold, here is my daughter, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you; but unto this man do not vile a thing” (Judges 19: 24-25).

In other cases, pregnant women who do not believe, and their children, are to be ripped up (Hosea 13:6), a price is put on virgins – female virgins, (Deut. 22: 28-29), men are able to divorce women with greater ease than vice-versa (various), and stoning of adulterous women is approved (and sometimes men too).

Women are ranked first in one category. The bible justifies burning witches and since witches were mostly identified as women, far more women than men were burned during the inquisition. This also illustrates how often the state and church (religion) worked together to keep all in place, but especially women.

Religion-state cooperation still takes place in the world. Just a brief look will be made of other religions.

Regarding Islam, Americans are outraged that suicide bombers are given 72 virgins in heaven. This is seen as outlandish, especially since suicide is forbidden in Islam. But as Jihadists, fighting infidels, such bombers are not seen as committing suicide.

In any case, the reward of 72 virgins is not mentioned in the Koran, but it is found in the Hadith, or traditions of Islam. We also have witnessed how women who have been raped are the ones punished, even by being stoned to death.

One author puts it that in Islam, “sex is seen entirely from the male point of view, woman’s sexuality is admitted but seen as something to be feared, repressed, and a work of the devil,” thus things like the burquah and long robes.

Islam even requires two female witnesses to be the equal of one male witness.

In Hinduism, there was the custom of “sati,” where at her husband’s death the wife laid herself on his funeral pyre for self-immolation, to join him as companion and servant. The woman was seen as having no intrinsic value without her husband and no justification to live without him.

The British largely ended this custom, but apparently it is still practiced in remote areas of India.

Gage describes a four-hour sermon of a Christian minister in the late nineteenth century, and she concludes his arguments that women were subordinate to men were based on the same arguments from the past, “that woman was created inferior to man, for man and was the first to sin.”

So I repeat my question to women, not out of any mean spirit but out of true interest: “Why do you continue to support religion, which in most cases seeks to hold you back and to make [keep] you a second-class citizen?”

Jim Coufal of Cazenovia is a part-time philosopher and full-time observer of global trends. He can be reached at

By martha

17 thoughts on “Women, a Curiosity & a Question”
  1. Hi Jim,
    Great question. I wrestled with it for many years. I stayed because I am driven by spiritual hunger.
    When I was in seminary, I was delighted to learn about Junia, an outstanding woman apostle commended by Paul. Paul also gave great responsibility to Phoebe, a minister.
    Then came the question, how could Paul commend these women and then turn around and tell them to sit down and shut up? This curiosity sent me to 5 seminary libraries and six years of research. It turned into a published book, “HIDDEN VOICES,” website above.
    Through my research I came to understand that the Jewish and Christian religions are not inherently patriarchal. They are inherently egalitarian. It is tradition that has layered on interpretations and translations that distort this basic truth.
    For Muslims, Fatima Mernissi, Moroccan sociologist, shows that discrimination against women is not a fundamental tenet of Islam in her book, “The Veil And The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation Of Women’s Rights In Islam”
    The research suggests many women stay because they know better now and they love God. They want to awaken people inside the churches, mosques and synagogues to the deeper message of our common faiths. They will teach their children the truths, who will take those truths into ministry, and gradually change the face of religion.
    Personally, when I found myself arguing with every sermon point given in a church with a woman priest, I decided it was time to move on. I spend my church time doing spiritual reading, meditating, and praying.

    1. Heidi:

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I honor your research and serious thinking, and I have to say I have not read “Hidden Voices” or the work of Fatima Mernissi, but these will go onto my already large “to be read” list.
      Having said this, at this point I must be honest to say there sounds to be some rationalization in your position and that of Mernissi. The teaching and practices I listed in my article can’t, I don’t think, be overlooked for either what they say or what they have led to in practice.
      I have heard the saying that “Christianity has not failed, Christianity has never been practiced.” But what have we to go on other than 2,000 years of history for Christianity, 4,000 years of history for Judaism, and 1,400 years for Islam, etc.
      Can you clarify what you mean by “women know better now,” and also I am not sure how to interpret your last paragraph.
      Again, thanks for your response.

  2. I had the misfortune of reading your puerile bile, your abeyance (to women) message for men, and was once again reminded, why men would take the side of females against his own sex. This traitorous action is carried out in sickening fashion by male feminists and have been labeled as being “Manginas”(female worshipers). A term reserved for women worshipers whose preference is to place them on the pedestal which they themselves have destroyed. But here we have efforts by men like yourself, assisting to rebuild it by claiming that women are somehow superior when in reality the only superiority is that they can spawn a child with man’s assistance). It’s a sad pathetic sight as we witness women treating men with contempt and derision and here you are given them license. It is truly pathetic.

    1. Wow, “Christian J.” you are one angry lil’ sumb****. Not to mention you do not have a shred of logical reasoning ability, but that is kind of the point isn’t it? You operate under a fear based system, where the mere thought of a woman having anything over you makes you crawl under the fridge when the light gets turned on.

      If there is anything “pathetic” it is the likes of you. “Men” (and that term is used quite loosely here) that try and use coercion, force and crass subjugation to women because of your own insecurities.

      I ask this, not in the classic debate use, but in a very real sense, because I suspect you have an abusive and nasty side to you….Have you stopped beating your wife?

    2. J. Christian:
      I thought your post might be a spoof, but then I went to your blog so I answer in all seriousness. Did you really read what I said or is your response simply the knee-jerk reaction of a “true believer.” I never claimed men were superior, I never gave women a license to treat men with contempt and derision, I never asked that women be placed on a pedestal. I did ask a serious question of women, and included a related question to men. I did list the teachings and actions of great religions. I did say that in some ways women are better than men. Do you dispute this, and what is your evidence, something that goes beyond vitriole.? You simply skip over these, the meat of my article, and go into an ad hominum attack built on sand. Why don’t you deal with the substance of my article instead of creating a substance that doesn’t exist?
      I generally refrain from being impolite, but I must say that your reply and your blog remind me that there is another group in the world who can be labeled — “Stupidos” — and they are true believers whom do not let truth or fact sway their beliefs.

  3. To Jim Coufal,

    Jim, unfortunately this important topic is developed with your usual mistaken assumptions about religiousness. As I have said before, most leading religious thinkers whom I studied during the fifty-seven years since I began my M.Div degree at Yale Divinity School were NOT biblicists or fundamentalists. Instead they accept historical-cultural criticism of the Bible and as well as other scriptures. This is especially true of the many feminist religious thinkers of the past half-century who have transformed contemporary religious thought.

    As early as Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father (1973) women themselves have explained their continuing religiousness, whether they choose to stay as reformers in the mainline traditions or leave to create new religious communities. See the section “Why Speak of God?” in that revolutionary text, where she says, “It is reasonable to take the position that sustained effort toward self-transcendence requires keeping alive in one’s consciousness the question of ultimate transcendence, that is, of God. It requires keeping in mind that we have no power over the ultimately real, and that whatever authentic power we have is derived from participation in ultimate reality” (28-29). No one, not even Matilda Joslyn Gage, as pungently critiques patriarchy and its religions as Daly. Yet she continues, as do most religious feminists, to advocate a sense of relationship to the “one in whom we live and move and have our being”—an ancient line quoted by Paul whom you demonize.

    Like Heidi Bright Parales, many women say that they persist in religiousness because they refuse to be told that the spirituality they have embraced is only a product of patriarchal culture. Like Martin Luther King, their relationship to the transcendent provides a perspective enabling criticism of social conditioning. During the past fifty years, women in every tradition have claimed the right to “do theology,” rather than only read it. As a “full-time observer of global trends,” you should read them.

    Wanda Warren Berry
    Professor of Philosophy and Religion emerita
    Colgate University
    Hamilton, NY.

    1. Wanda,

      You have degrees in, and teach, mythology. And worse, it is “interpretive mythology” at best. SO I ask you, what makes you interp correct? Or do you have some rule book or set of by-laws that illustrate how to read the books of myth and interpret them? Sort of a “How to Use Religious Texts” for Dummies, so to speak – although that is rather redundant.

      You could list all the letters and self-imposed credentials after your name as you would like, but the reality — reality, as in not based in myth or religiousity – is that you have no greater claim to know what those books contain than anyone else. I love how you self-admiring types try to position yourselves as experts in this, when you might just as well label yourself an expert in Spiderman Comics. I mean, at least the Spiderman Comics offer entertainment and a hero worthy of admiring.

    2. To Wanda:
      I’d be pleased to have you explain my “usual mistaken assumptions about religiousness.” In the case of my article you must first describe what assumptions I have made, since i do not list any, but rather list direct statement from the bible and the koran, describe actions that are historically known and accurate, and ask a straightforward and sincere question. Second, you should also define how you mean “religiousness” as opposed to supporting “religion.”
      The fact that most of the religious thinkers you have studied were not fundamentalists (to use a shorthand word) does not negate their existence nor their impact. Perhaps it describes your inclinations. Are you denying that the kind of quotes I used in my article, and many others unquoted, were used throughout history to suppress women? Do you deny that during the dark ages church/state relationships were a major factor in suppressing women, and such relationships continue in parts of the world today? Do you deny that in U.S. history women were treated as chattel, and such treatment was often justified biblically? Do you deny that today a strong fundamentalist movement works to deny gay rights, abortion, and the right of women to control their own bodies?
      By the way, I do not demonize Paul, I quote him. Other demonize Paul, and many believe that the religion we call christianity today was the work of Paul, not Jesus. I’m sure you know all of this.
      The answer to my question, that women advocate a sense of relationship to the “one in whom we live and move and have our being,” is a fair one, but it is one that raises more questions, such as which of the many religions is “the one,” and why?
      As a professor of philosophy and religion you must realize that to “do theology” is largely to engage in a word game, and one that frequently uses words to control people, as witnessed by history. And for the record, again, the description “full-time observer of global trends” is one of the editor, not me..

      Jim Coufal

  4. Response to Jim and Eric,

    I should not have tried to respond in an on-line comment, especially this week, since I am too busy to respond quickly. And I should have learned long ago that much more explanation is required to communicate about such matters than is allowed in a short on-line comment.

    To Eric: allow me to say that I did not list my degrees and that you do not really know what I studied. With regard to my theory of knowledge, I am a religious existentialist. As an existentialist, I believe there is no objective proof when it comes to meanings and values. I respect the challenges of objectivity in science and develop my values in diialogue with what I learn from science, but I believe with Kierkegaard that “to be the truth is the only true explanation of what truth is” when it comes to questions about the meaning of life and of values. The test of existential truth is what one can and does live with self-honesty and in responsibility with others on this planet, whether or not those values can be proved objectively.

    To Jim: it is not unusual to distinguish between “religion,” which often refers to institutions and traditions, and “religiousness” as individual appropriation of a relation to the ultimate. Heidi and others use the word “spirituality.” I have usually used “religiousness” because it does not carry implications of an orientation which is anti-body and non-social.
    The fields of “women and religion” and “feminist religious thought” which I eventually taught among my battery of courses, did not exist when I struggled to find my way as a religious person in a world which discriminated against me as a woman. Of course, I know about how patriarchal religions have contributed to the oppression of women. I have shared in the battles to change these traditions. And, like Heidi, I usually am disappointed at the slowness of change. Nevertheless, I also am astounded at the revolution that has happened. When I went to theological school, almost all seminaries did not accept women at all; now women constitute more than half of the enrollment at leading schools of theology.

    Jim: what I meant about your assumptions was that your quoting of scriptural texts seems to assume that anyone who finds religious scriptures valuable takes these texts literally and as absolute authority. Now I have looked back at some of your articles and realize I may have confused some of the Caz curmudgeon’s articles with yours. I apologize. But I see this same tendency in, e.g., the article where you assume the creation stories are taken literally, rather than as poems expressing wonder at existence and interpretation of human nature. The stories, poems, music, liturgies of our traditions resonate deeply in our psyches and many people find life enriched by living in and with these symbols. I do not ask you to be religious, but only to respect the fact that many religious persons are NOT fundamentalists. And I ask that you trust women as equally ntelligent, informed, and conscientious in their choices, whether they stay with their religious traditions or not.

    Wanda Warren Berry

    1. Wanda:
      Again, thanks for your response. Such exchange is certainly a way to learning. You call yourself a “religious existentialist.” I will call myself an atheistic agnostic (some use the label weak atheist). I certainly have no pretense that i can prove or disprove the existence of a god. But I also find no evidence for the existence of a god, and so proceed as if there is no such being. Further, if there is a such a “being,” I would fall in the category of deist, since I even more strongly believe there is not evidence for a personal, loving god.
      I can’t speak for Eric, but actual educational credential aside, when you list that you are a “Professor of Philosophy and Religion Emerita,” and then talk of your M. Div. degree from Yale Divinity School, etc., I think your credential are apparent.
      I never said that in quoting scriptural texts that I find all believers take them to be literally or absolute authority. Nor did i ever say that i did not trust women, etc. “whether they stay with with their religious traditions or not.” I asked why they do, and I suggest that it is you who have made assumptions throughout.
      I do not believe that all women or all men are “equally intelligent….etc.” a situation that should be evident to you. One anecdote should suffice. My wife and i were at a dinner party with three other couples, all good friends. Somehow, the topic got around to religion, and in the course of the discussion I offered to provide readings to a devout Catholic, Her response was a startled, “No, no, no! I’m happy as I am.” She did not want to investigate or learn anything more, especially things outside her comfort zone. I don’t believe her reaction was uncommon, and I don’t believe the high-blown words of philosophy and theology reach such people, especially in the prose so often used in these disciplines.
      I do believe like existentialists, that we can’t appeal to systems of law or tradition as decisive in making choices, that our meaning is constructed through choice, and that bad faith leads to bad choices via self-deception, I am suspicious of religion—with real cause—-, yet I find it unreasonable to agree with Kierkegaard’s idea that true love of god is expressed in the willingness to set aside moral habits and respond to the divine command. If the existentialist emphasis is on individuals, then there are billions of divine commands, and if was to accept that they are rationally unapproachable and must just do it, anarchy seems to be the result.
      One of my purposes in writing the column is ask people to think, and to expand their thinking base, and to do so in a language they understand. And no, I am not the curmudgeon, but i know him well and often agree with his thoughts.


      1. Some existentialist thoughts:

        A man said to the universe:
        “Sir, I exist!”
        “However,” replied the universe,
        “The fact has not created in me
        a sense of obligation.” – Stephen Crane

        WHat we think or what we know or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only thing of consequence is what we do. – John Ruskin.

  5. Thanks, Jim, but we would have to talk more directly and in greater length to understand each other. I have tried to indicate that being religious to me is not the same as believing in a theistic “God.” It has to do with an attitude of wonder and worship and gratitude toward transcendent reality understood as Holy. Sort of like Gandhi, whom you mention in your last column, equating God and Truth with a sense of the Holy/Brahman. Or like Buber’s “Eternal Thou” Or Daly’s “Verb”/ Be-ing Itself”.

    And I would argue that Kierkegaard has a profound ethic of responsibility grounded in faith. That would take a long time to explain, dealing with the pseudonymous works like FEAR AND TREMBLING and the works published under his own name, e.g., WORKS OF LOVE.

    I do not believe in hiding behind a fictitious name, so did identify part of who I am. But that does not in any way justify someone in saying I studied and taught mythology in its negative implications. Actually “mythology” is not a negative term for me, since one of the fields i studied was Classical Greek Religion and Drama. And my work in Religion and Psychology caused in depth study of people like Freud and Jung, who take mythology as carrying important symbolic meaning.

    Sorry– but when you share your thoughts in print and on line all sorts of odd people might read them. But I guess I will be more reticent to respond if I am not supposed to be myself even with the hard-earned degrees I worked myself through.


  6. Wanda:
    A writer knows exactly what he/she means. A reader knows exactly what he/she reads. And, yes, often the twains don’t meet. More direct talk is certainly preferable, with its nuances of body language, the chance to clarify things, etc.
    I have suggested to more than one respondent in the past that sending anonymous comments isn’t fair, so I do appreciate your self identification in this correspondence and I do honor your degrees. It appears that you take the comment on mythology as literal; I read it as sarcasm. And I do know the value of mythology and i constantly harangue my professional colleagues on the value of telling our “story,” especially our story beyond science and economics.
    If I interpret your comments correctly, you may not believe in a “theistic god,” but you believe in a transcendent believed as holy. Transcendnt seems to imply a supernatural being, one beyond knowing and understanding, and yet theologians proceed to tell us about such unknowable entities? And phrases like the “Eternal thou,” and “Verb”/”being itself” are exactly what I was talking about in saying such notions do not reach the average person.
    I appreciate your continued commentary, and I welcome your follow up to my remarks herein. But I intend to make this my last response in this series.
    And please, do be yourself. You obviously have much to offer.

    Jim Coufal

  7. Dear Jim,

    I write to you as a Muslim woman regarding the question you have asked. The thing is, I do not see my religion as holding me back or treating me as a second citizen in the slightest. It is true that there are many interpretations of religion which do belittle women, but just as with any ideological attitude or construct there is huge variation within religious traditions and perspectives.

    You mentioned a number of concerns related to Islam, indeed potentially serious issues for women they affect. Let us begin with the 72 virgins thing.

    Okay so the first thing to understand about hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) is that they are debated – Muslim scholars essentially recorded every story about anything he’d ever said a long time after he died when they realised Muslims were beginning to forget. These scholars then labelled different sayings as more or less reliable, based on the chain of transmission. If someone sourcing a story was judged by the scholar to have a bad character or to have lied about other things, then the validity of their story would be thrown into doubt – but still recorded. If the source received his story through a long and convoluted chain of unreliable reporters, the validity of the story would be thrown into doubt – but still recorded. This is because early Muslims had great reverence for his words and wanted to risk losing nothing that had even a tiny chance of having been truly from his lips.

    Even more complicated, different scholars have different approaches to categorising whether these stories or hadiths were reliable, or likely to be false. Thus, there is everlasting debate among Muslims over which hadiths are valid and which are invalid. Furthermore, as it is hadith rather than literally from the Qur’an, (thus from a divinely inspired, brilliant, but still fallible/human man, rather than directly from God) many Muslims interpret this hadith metaphorically to express bliss and bounty, even if they do accept it and don’t view it as weak or unreliable (many many many reject it for these reasons). There is also a whole discussion of whether the word used might mean (delicious) ‘white grapes’ (or dates, a key food type for the Arabs) rather than virgins – as it has two meanings and the feasting, sweet drinks, green plants and flowing waters of paradise are a constant theme in the Qur’an.

    The punishment of women who have been raped is completely contrary to Islam. The Qur’an is incredibly clear about the vileness of false accusations or criticism of a woman’s moral character and conduct: if you make an accusation even questioning a woman’s fidelity, you are liable to severe punishment unless you can prove your claim. The Qur’an even goes to the extent of providing an example of a woman who was completely chaste and falsely criticised – despite being PREGNANT – but who was in truth innocent despite all appearances (Maryam). In essence, when women are punished after being raped in SOME Muslim countries what often happens is that the accusers (a gang of men, often the perpetrators) claim that she is falsely accusing them of rape for what was consensual sex – thus, she is not punished for rape, but for ‘false’ accusations and related ‘crimes’ claimed by the men, of whom there are often many more than her single voice in contrast to her one voice. It’s an appalling way to handle this issue, and not acceptable within Islam at all. Some countries also have deeply patriarchal cultures within the court systems – this is down to the work of individuals and communities, but it is not the work of Islam. Such appalling lies and practices of punishing women in this way are deeply unIslamic, and have been widely condemned within the Muslim world as well as the Western world.

    You describe the Burqa as evidence that Islam fears, represses and views female sexuality as the work of the devil. Whatever it symbolises (for many women, it is to do with spirituality, modesty, empowerment, I-Can-See-You-But-You-Can’t-See-Me liberation from objectification, being judged by your words and actions, not your face) notice that it is not worn by all (or even most) Muslim women. Interestingly, there are prominent hadiths absolutely commanding husbands to bring wives to orgasm before satisfying themselves and forbidding sex without foreplay (it’s quite detailed). Given this insistence on female pleasure even over male as a religious duty, I do not see how female sexuality is the work of the devil under Islam. Furthermore, the Qur’an consistently deals with women and men together – all the way through – good men and good women, believing men and believing women etc. Men are no more its focus than women.

    The female/ male witnesses thing SPECIFICALLY refers to one type of court hearing – financial/contractual – and it is specifically in a time when the majority of women were illiterate. We are told that if a woman cannot remember the figures (which would be hard for an illiterate lady) two may be required to back up one another. Our Western courts also recognise differing levels of reliability for witnesses based on their own skills and experience. For example, an illiterate person would be considered weaker than a literate one if standing witness on a matter of numerical detail and professing uncertainty regarding their understanding of/ memory for figures due to their educational background. The rule was laid down at a time when women did not typically have access to strong education, particularly for calculations; this is all it refers to.

    I actually feel empowered as a Muslim woman, I feel proud to be a woman and free to live as I choose, without surrendering my integrity or value to the views of men and being distracted by material/ external things, instead aiming to focus my life on doing good deeds and improving my character in service of God, as my religion encourages me to do.

  8. I really like what Heidi said – these faiths are egalitarian in their hearts, but people misuse them, as with any institution, to pursue their own agendas and power.

  9. but as women we don’t need to let other people determine what God means to us, and if they’re misogynists… it doesn’t mean we think their interpretation is acceptable or valid. So we are not submitting (in many cases) to their warped ideas, but to something central to our own sense of dignity and morality 🙂

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