Women apparently have never had it so good. In today’s supposedly post-feminist world, cosmetic surgery is seen as empowering, lap dancing as a sexually liberating career, and the lack of women from boardroom a result of women’s free choices. In The Equality Illusion, campaigner Kat Banyard argues passionately and articulately that feminism continues to be one of the most urgent and relevant social justice campaigns today.
Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men and Women Today takes an unflinching look at what it means to be a woman today and, due to the fact that Banyard is British, especially in the UK .
Still, whether you are an Afghan woman fighting for girl’s rights of literacy or an American doctor performing late stage abortions, you have one thing in common: you lead a dangerous life and might end up being killed. Both things happened. The first happened in Afghanistan in 2006, the second in the US in 2009. They illustrate the illusion of equality and show what a global phenomenon it is.
Banyard structured the book like a day in a woman’s life and tied each part to a topic. Getting up – beauty myths, going to work – sexual harassment and the opposite of equal opportunity, coming home – domestic violence and unwanted pregnancies, evening out- lap dancing clubs, porn industry and prostitution… This structure works very well.
The key topics are beauty and looks, equal opportunity at work, poverty, literacy, the sex industry, domestic violence, abuse, relationships and children. Banyard looks at everyday life and how it is lived and not so much at the ideas beneath it all. There is an introdcutory chapter on false assumptions about gender but it is quite short.
To say the least, I was shocked about a lot of the data and statistics and saddened by most of the individual stories. Whoever said that feminism wasn’t needed anymore or that we were by now equal?
Women are to this day among the poorest of the world. In some African countries little girls do not go to school because they are raped on the way. In the UK some girls have bad grades because there is constant sexual harassment at school and all the teachers do is saying “boys will be boys”. In some countries girls are forbidden to learn to write and read.
Humiliating and degrading girls serves to highlight just how masculine boys really are. And so, sexist bullying and sexual harassment are an integral part of daily school life for many girls. (p.67)
What women have to face at work isn’t much better. Cases of all forms of sexual harassment are frequent. Women with children do not have a lot of chances to make a career, especially not, when, as seems to be the case, men do not help enough when it comes to child rearing. Payment is still not equal at all and this stems to a large part from the fact that many jobs performed by women are considered to be less valuable and are paid less.
Legislation can create the illusion that equality has been achieved. But just because it is officially illegal to pay women less than men for equal work, to sack them for being pregnant, or to sexually harass them, it doesn’t mean theses things don’t go on. There is a huge gulf between policy and practice, and much current legislation – particularly around equal pay – lacks real bite. In a society where women still do the majority of unpaid caring, rigid workplace structures and the long-hours culture mean they pay a huge penalty for doing so. (p.101)
There is a trend, especially in the UK to normalize the porn industry. According to the interviews in this book, there is no such thing as “elegant lap dancing clubs”. Sooner or later all the women are harassed and coerced into having sex. Prostitution may be a choice but only because the women have not much to lose. They have often been abused as children, are very poor, have no education or just had no idea what they were getting into. “At work” they face brutality and violence on top of the degrading activity of selling their bodies.
I think the way society has glorified prostitution is very sad. I believe young women all over the world are becoming more curious (about going into prostitution) due to the positive light that is shown on this horrid profession. (p.145)
Domestic violence is extremely wide-spread, rape is on the up and many perpetrators are never convicted and if they are the punishment is ludicrous.
What bothers me personally the most in my personal life are two things. One is something I’m facing at work- there is no such a thing as equal treatment and the other is something I see happen, namely the overwhelming presence of the influence of the porn industry. Porn practices, fashion and looks seem to become normalized to the extent where you can find “sexy” underwear and clothes for little girls at the supermarket.
Compared to all this it may seem futile to debate whether all the pink toys for girls are really an issue or not but when you dig deeper, you just see that it is one of the symptoms of gender inequality. And it’s everywhere.
What I truly liked about the book, is that Kat Banyard offers hope. Her last chapter and the appendix are entirely dedicated to grassroot activism which is extremely important work and she offers a list of resources. She clearly shows how important feminism still is, that you can achieve something if you want to, it doesn’t need to be anything big and that your dedication may inspire others to follow your example. Last but not least she underlines that feminism also needs the contribution of men and they will ultimately also benefit from equality.
l read about this book on Still Life with Books. I’m really glad I read it and would love to hear from anyone who has read this or any of the other new/old publications. My first thought when I saw these new books was “But that has been done before….” Yes, it has, but apparently most of it has been forgotten. And we need books that back up the topics with actual data or the books get dismissed as being outdated.
I hope I might finally get to Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender next.
31 thoughts on “Kat Banyard: The Equality Illusion (2010)”
Actually, and at risk of sounding like the Guardian reader that I am, I think pink matters.
I see US psychologists arguing in all seriousness for a biological, neurological, basis for a female preference for pink. It’s a preference only around a century old though. It’s very recent, and demonstrably cultural.
So, something that changed within recorded history, a colour preference that 100 years ago would not have been recognised, is put forward as evidence for fundamental neurological difference. It’s absurd, and it’s telling how sociobiology so often seems to support the status quo of our particular society (of all the many societies that do and have existed).
I’m not to be clear hostile to sociobiology per se, but science can be misused as well as it can be used and in the US in particular I’m seeing a lot of pseudoscience backing a rolling back of feminist advances.
The other point you remind me of is the pornification of society, which I agree is troubling. It’s not that I have an objection to people making or consuming porn. That for me is a free speech issue. It’s more the ubiquity and cultural acceptability of it. Friends, the sit com, showed it as natural for couples to consume it together. Where does that leave women (and it will usually be women) who’re not comfortable with that? Friends was far from alone in that though.
Magazines like Loaded, Esquire, FHM etc all have a porn mindset, but again portray it as normal. Fun. I’ve no problem with porn as porn, it’s the pretence that it’s just good clean fun that nobody should object to that bothers me more. It creates expectations about how women should behave and how they should be treated which I think are invidious.
All that said, I no longer refer to myself as a feminist. The term is too close to one of ridicule to be used now. Particularly if you’re a man.
This isn’t the first backlash. During each world war women made major advances in social equality. After each came massive pushbacks which set them back where we are. I think right now we’re in another pushback, fighting against the advances made in the ’60s and ’70s.
I certainly agree with you and also on the subject of pink. I think Cordelia Fine goes into this topic with great detail, taking apart the false assumption that it is an inborn preference. I will read it next. I honestly love pink but I had a father who loved pink and purple and a mother who didn’t, I never thought it had anything to do with being a girl but when I hear parents of young kids nowadays and they always say about their girls “of course everything needs to be pink” it makes me mad as it doesn’t have to be that way. On the other hand I feel almost ashamed that I like it.
I’m reading a book that I like a great deal at the moment called “Click” and it’s about the moment when the women and one man in the book discovered they were feminists.I mention it because there is at least one man among them but I’m sure it’s twice as hard for a man to say “I’m a feminist”. I overhear women at work saying “I’m not a feminist but I think it isn’t OK…”. Imagine. Yes, there is a major backlash but, despite what Kat Banyard’s says, women are also responsible. Many think they will be liked by men if they say they are against feminism, that they want to be real women… Real women and real men? What is that?
In Germany there is this huge back to Kinder Küche Kirche trend.
I have a bit more of a problem with porn than you do but I also think there is no stopping it. There are no more borders. It is everywhere and getting more and more violent. I read a book about the murders in the city of Juarez and most of the young women who got murdered were probably victims of snuff movies.
Back to the ubiquity of porn, Banyard shows clearly that it also creates expectations. Many men who regularly consume porn think that their girlfriends and women should like the same things the women in the movie “like”. Porn inspired fashion doesn’t stop when it comes to children.
Why should a little girl wear a thong?
I was astonished that she thinks that the UK is worse than many other places. She thinks that lap dancing clubs are particularly problematic as you don’t need a proper permit, or at least you didn’t in 2009. It seems to change now.
After everything the feminists of former decades did and fought for. It’s a timely book.
I was expecting your post and I have many comments on the subject. (unsurprisingly)
I understand there is a difference between American and European feminists. The American are pro-difference (considering a woman is different from a man and has specifities) whereas the European are more fighting for equality (refering men and women as human beings). Is that correct?
Like Max, I think pink matters. Sometimes it’s difficult to find clothes for little girls without pink. My son actually thinks pink is a colour for girls and I have to remind him that his father has pink shirts.
And yes, porn is everywhere. I’m not shocked about adults watching porn films. They’re grown ups and do what they want. But technology makes these films easily available and are watched by teenagers who think it is standard sex and grow up with a wrong image of sex and women.
I’m shocked by clothes and shoes for little girls: sexy skirts, throngs, high heel shoes, vulgar images on their TShirts. THAT bothers me because these girls aren’t grown ups. Their personality is building progressively and what they learn and assume is that it is normal for a woman to wear sexy clothes and be a sex toy. That’s preoccupying. (btw, there’s a TV campaign against conjugal rape on the French TV these days. I hope it will help some women)
I don’t believe in theories stating that women’s brains are different or that there is such a thing as motherly instinct. I agree with Max, I think science is misused to go along with what some people want to hear. All comes from education, that’s it. School books are sexist: if they need to draw someone cooking, it will always be a woman, for example. Children magazines are terribly sexist and pink and corny for little girls. They talk about boys and fashion in magazines aimed at girls under 10. Cartoons like Totally Spies and The Winx Club are horribly sexist: the characters look like Lara Croft, they love shopping and need to have a boy-friend. Have a look once, you’ll be astonished to discover how this is nothing else than brainwashing.
But some things have changed too: In France, some MPs want to vote a law increasing the time of father leave. The aim is to fight against discrimination against pregnant women.
My daughter plays football with the boys in school. When I was her age, they wouldn’t have let a girl play. I also think that boys toys include less guns than when we were little. They don’t play at war anymore. And you see many many men bringing children at school.
There is hope. Let’s have baby boomers retire and we’ll have different bosses at work.
PS : Françoise Giroud said: “The equality between men and women will be real when we’ll see an incompetent woman appointed at an important position.”
I’m not sure whether this is a European/American difference of feminism: It is possible. I always knew both to run parallel. Those feminist who wanted to underline differences and those who didn’t. The famous German feminist Alice Schwarzer always used to say “The future should be human and not female or male “.
I think peer pressure is massive in schools. If your son turned up wit ha pink shirt, he might be in trouble. And since pink is the predominant girl toy colour… There shouldn’t even be such a thing as toys for a girl or a boy. I wouldn’t know what to do. I like pink but wouldn’t want my daughter, if I had one, to think it’s in her genes to like it. There is simply no variety. I can see how it would be difficult to just buy something else as it isn’t available. A friend told me she wanted to buy baby clothes in advance and didn’t know whether it would be a boy or a girl, so she wanted “gender neutral” colours (also odd…) and couldn’t find any. It was either light blue or pink with little other choice.
And the issue with the sexy clothes is really disturbing. I don’t want to imagine what self-image they will have.
Cordelia Fine shows data that demonstrates that science has been misused.
There is a YouTube channel of a young American feminist who analyzes children’s toys and also movies. Veronica Mars is the only series that she thinks shows a positive role model for girls. She also showed that there was hardly any movie that won the Oscar with a woman as the main protagonist and she counted the movies in which there were at least two women, with names, talking to each other and not about men and there were hardly any. I guess all this is reflected in magazines and books for children.
Yes, some things are getting better. Slowly. Banyard also states that if men would and could take care of their children like the women do then there would be less discrimination for this reason.
Françoise Giroud is sarcastic. But she got a point.
I think there is a backlash every ten years or so. I think there were a lot of feminists among baby boomers too. And before and after. It’s just upsetting how it always goes back to square one.
I tried not to buy pink clothes for my baby girl when I was expecting her. I confirm, it’s very difficult. If you buy something blue, you can be sure people will bend over the craddle and say “oh the nice little boy”!
About toys. A fashionable toy is zuzupets. First marketed for girls. Then marketed for boys…with a soldier fur. (camouflage style like military clothes)
I also think that American blockbusters are very sexist (rom com and action movies) and that European films are more nuanced.
“she counted the movies in which there were at least two women, with names, talking to each other and not about men and there were hardly any”
And if you add that they shouldn’t be talking about clothes, then it’s zero. There’s a sort of idea that when you’re a woman, you’re supposed to love kids, shopping – and particularly shoes and purses beyond everything-, talking over the phone -with your mother- during hours.
Yuck. But then, when you’re a man, there’s a sort of idea that you like sport – football if possible -TV, beer and watching women. It’s all about imposing social stereotypes and men should be with us on that one too because they’re concerned as well.
I totally agree with you. I think it’s also very limiting for men. Since I read that about the movies I do pay attention. European movies are decidedly not as bad but I think she was looking mostly at blockbusters. I don’t know zuzupets…
Excellent review, Caroline! I really need to get around to writing my own before I forget all the details. Like you, I loved the hopefulness and the appeal to activism. And yes, do read Delusions of Gender! I loved it even more than this (and yes, it does address the points in Max’s comment in great detail.)
Thanks Nymeth. It was hard to choose from all the information she provides. I’m sure that Delusions of Gender is in a way the better book but as Kat Banyard emphasizes, many books are too academic. Hers and some others are for every one. I think Fine is probably more theoretical and while I enjoy that and think there was a need for her book, I also think there is a need for simpler, more practical books.
The lapdancing thing in the UK I’ve seen complained of several times. It’s something to do with how they’re classified for planning applications. Local communities who object to having one in their midst struggle to find legal grounds of objection because they’re not classified as sex establishments but as entertainment (like a pub or cafe).
Getting consent for a cafe is much easier legally than for a sex establishment, and rights of objection are far fewer. The result is people can’t object even though on any sensible analysis it plainly is a sex establishment. It’s more a peculiarity of local law than a wider political issue that one I think. That said nobody’s rushed to fix the problem despite requests and it does therefore contribute to a surprising frequency of lapdancing clubs in Britain.
What you write about lapdancing in the UK is incredible and makes me think of Money and the bar owned by John’s father. How did Martin Amis do to feel things would go this way?
That’s what she writes but according to the afterword the law has been changed in 2011 and it will be more dofficult to open a new one and it might even be that existing ones could be closed down. Since the publication of the hardback edition there seems to be quite a huge wave of activism.
This sounds like an interesting book–I’ve not read as widely on the topic as I should so will have to note this down. I’m not really sure what the differences between US and European feminism are, though I think the two groups have had a different way of approaching the topic.
As for pink I think there is nothing wrong with the color or to like it–it’s only a pity that so many clothes geared towards girls is pink–there is not a lot of choice really. Interesting my niece who is twelve doesn’t like pink and makes sure if we buy her clothes we pick other colors, however, the same niece was wearing something resembling a bra from a very early age–she sees these things in stores and had to have them–not a plain undershirt. It has always made me think that today’s culture makes kids grow up far too quickly to want these adult things.
I had Barbies so I shouldn’t really really pick on Bratz dolls, but I always thought they looked far too suggestive for such little girls–tiny skirts and high heels, little tank tops (maybe Barbie was just as bad?). My niece had loads of them.
I always think I am pretty liberal, but I think when it comes down to it I am really a prude–an adult should be able to make their own choices and if they like porn-well…But to be honest I find it very disturbing as the images are so often extremely denigrating to women and give a false idea of what is okay or what all women must like or should do. I know porn has existed for many centuries, but it is so prolific now you can’t escape it–even in everyday advertising the images are almost always of women giving unrealistic representations–what we should look like to be popular or beautiful. This sort of thing gives mixed messages to everyone I think.
“I find it very disturbing as the images are so often extremely denigrating to women and give a false idea of what is okay or what all women must like or should do.”
Danielle, I agree with that but I can’t help thinking it can be said the other way round. It’s harmful for the average man if all women start watching porn and think men should look like porn actors. So we should all agree to fight against this banalization. 🙂
When they grow up girls don’t like pink anymore because they think it’s for little girls. My daughter (10) claims she loves black (Already, I know. Didn’t we wait for Junior High to love black?)
I agree with you on another issue: stop those ads with skinny and half-fed models. Very few people can look so thin without starving.
Black at ten is also a challenge… I agree.
Interesting that your niece doesn’t like pink. I think it is to a large extent peer pressure and she seems quite immune but then you have that “bra thing”. It is so odd. I really don’t know what I would do as a mother. Society forces you into buying those things really. But it’s the same for us. If fashion dictates a certain colour you will have a hard time finding something else.
I also played with barbies but don’t know these Bratz dolls, will have to do some research. Barbie was blamed for making girls anorectic and I think in the US there was a campaign to make her hips wider… I haven’t looked at a barbie doll for a long time but those I had were certainly on the skinny side.
I have a problem with porn, I must admit but on the other hand I must also admit I have never watched one just seen pictures and that was already enough for me.
I think all our liberal thinking has trapped us and we don’t even dare saying out loud anymore that some things are not acceptable. I wouldn’t go as far as forbidding the magazines or movies, it’s up to grown-ups to decide whether they want to watch it or not but we should stop to display it too openly. It decidely gives mixed messages.
Reading my comment I see it is riddled with spelling errors–sorry about that–must be better at proof reading!
No worries. I unfortunately do that all the time. I write a comment and press too early and then it’s full of mistakes. I even left one comment a few days back and I’m still amazed the eprson knew what i wanted to say…
I just read the German novel The Stronger Sex by Hans Werner Kettenbach. It’s about a lawyer who’s pressured to represent a German industrialist who fires a long time employee. The case gets very murky as the fired engineer was the boss’s mistress for 10 years. She was fired after taking a week off which she spent with a man (presumably her lover) in a Swiss resort. She had medical documentation to support her request for time off (and that gets murky too), but bottom line, she’s fired. Obviously the firing is very personal and vindictive and very little to do with the woman’s work performance.
The thing that amazed me was that the term ‘sexual harassment’ never appeared once. If this were an American novel, that issue would be up front and central. Anyway, just makes me think of the cultural differences I suppose.
On another note, Amanda Craig’s novel Hearts and Minds really makes the link between prostitution and sex slavery. I used to fly with the ‘victimless crime’ argument but I can’t swallow that any longer.
I think this is still handled differently in Europe. The concept of sexual harassment is quite vague and you might even get into more trouble reporting it than doing it. On the other hand I think it’s a bit over the top in the US. A guy told me it might even be critical to pay a woman a compliment.
I always thought prostitution was a choice until I met a prostitute who told me about herself and her colleagues. It’s isn’t a victimless crime, no.
Just this week-end my girl friend told me how she failed at her “sexual harrassment test” in her company. (French branch of a US company). She answered wrong at one question and it was: “a man is telling dirty jokes in the office. Someone looks ill at ease. What do you do?” She chose the answer that said “nothing” (obvious for a French) and the correct answer was “report to the HR”. (unthinkable for a French, both because dirty jokes are admitted if they aren’t about someone in particular and because “report” is not in our culture) She had to go on a special trainship.
I think in Switzerland it’s somewhat like in France but I personally would say something but not to HR. We need to find a balance… It’s very difficult.
I would also recommend Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women as an excellent contribution to the feminist debate which is finally, finally getting off the ground once again. My particular interest is in how difficult it is for mothers to have careers. I have no idea how we get around this, but I think the obsession with attachment parenting is going to have to loosen its grip. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to children to have one carer in a relentless one-on-one relationship all the time, because it’s hard for women to maintain the correct responses to their child and plenty of mothers fail spectacularly at that. Not surprising when there’s no support for them and actually very little cultural respect for what they do.
The porn thing is an odd one – I think it’s mostly economics-driven. What makes money has to be rehabilitated one way or another by our desperate governments and capitalist culture. The porn industry is huge, and thus defended despite everything that’s wrong about it.
In my opinion, there is only one way to promote women’s career : have systems (nurseries, nannies…) to take care of the children when you work.
In France, most women work. You have several possibilities for babies and toddlers :
– registered nannies (state run agencies list them and you choose who you want on the list). The children stay at the nanny’s house during the day
– nurseries : professional nurses take care of the children.
– nannies at home : this is more expensive but families receive financial support from the state family agency and have income tax reductions.
When children go to school:
– we have baby-sitting at school and study hall
– you can still have a registered nanny to pick up your kids at school and keep them at her house until you come back from work.
– and you can have a nanny at home who will pick the children at school and keep them at your house until you come home.
It works pretty well but it can be expensive despite the financial support you receive and it can be difficult when you have unusual schedules. (you’re a nurse, work late in a shop…)
Litlove – I have already bought Staal’s book. It sounded really good. Also because she looks at the books that influenced her. I agree, it is great that the debate is rekindled.
I am fascinated by the Kibbutz approach which pretty much goes in the direction you mention. The children are not only raised by their parents but by the community. It did sound quite healthy as well. Backlash trends often state that it is harmful for a child if it doesn’ just have one person who takes care. I think, all the kid wants, is to feel safe and loved.
Banyard mentions some numbers regarding porn/economy… They are very enlightening.
Bookaroundthecorner – I think the French system allows it for women to work, it is much easier than in Switzerland but there is also an economical factor. There is no need for two people to work in Switzerland… I just would have thought that the British system would be closer to the French but it isn’t. But at the end of the day there is only so much the govenrment can do as long as not both parents can take care. I know many men who would be better care givers than women or would enjoy doing it while there really are women who don’t like it.
The other question is whether the mother/father wouldn’t like to spend more time with their kids. A few years ago many mothers worked part time, this is less possible now and it isn’t fair. You can do a great job in 80%. We have one female line manager who works 80% but she was lucky as her boss was in favour. In large parts of the company it is a no-go and it’s unthinkable for a man to ask to work part time because he would like to take care of the kids… I think it is very sad. These things say so much about our society…
Sounds like a fascinating read. Must add it to the list.
I think that feminism is needed as much now as it ever was, because although the social pressures may have changed, they are still very much there. To be a white man is the default, and any other viewpoint is different and strange.
And when you look at authors like VS Naipul saying that he can always tell when writing is by a woman because it is inferior, well, I think that lets us know that feminism is still needed.
Banyard is doing a great jo., She is highly active and has her own organisation and the book is well done, well structured and can serve as a tool for activism.
There are many passages I didn’t even summarize that are well worth reading. New trends in the US sexual education… Very harmful.
I’m glad you mentioned Naipaul, I almost forgot that again, it really does show how important feminism is. Maybe more than ever.
This sounds like an amazing read, your review is amazing as well. I really like the thing she has covered in her book. This makes the second non-fiction book I wanted to find, the other one is a story of an atheist that converted into Islam.
It is sad to know that those women in Afgan are the victim of missinterpreting the holy book…how could they think a woman should never learn to read and write when the prophet’s wife was a succesful bussiness woman.
Prostitution is really scary, having a daugther makes parents worried that their daugther will turn into prostitution. Here, in Indonesia (mostly in Big Cities) there are girls who are still in highschool or college that sell their bodies just for money. The money is often used to buy expensive things for them to show off. As a teacher, I am so worried about my gilrs. I keep hoping none will turn into that kind of girl, they value looks over their own body and heart
Thank you, Novia. It might not be so easy to find as it is a British and not an American book. It is a very important book. Afghanistan is giving the Islam a really bad name, I agree. Many Muslim women do amazing things to fight against this injustice against girls and women and, as in this example, are even willing to risk their lives. There seem to be many movements like this, in which they teach children secretely. I always think if every girl could learn to read and write the world would slowly start to look better.
I think it would be very difficult to raise a girl in today’s world. You want to protect them but also give them freedom and they are in danger. Prostitution and sex trafficking are global problems, there isn’t a city where it isn’t an issue. Sometimes you hera about cases like that, girls think they can make easy money by selling their bodies but they aren’t even aware of what they are getting into. But what I find even more shicking are parents who sell their children. Babies even.
I think it is very dificult for a girl not to be influenced by the media and to focus on other things than thier looks.
I’m sure it is a challenge for a teacher as well, not only for parents.
I wonder how it is in Indonesia, are women a lso paid less than men? Do you have equal opportunities at work? Maybe it is easier to have children and work because the parents would help? I met a woman from the Philippines recently and she was working and had children but her mother looked after them. The problem will start with the next generation, when the grand mother is working too.
I don’t know whether women are paid less or not in my country because I have never worked in a company. I have been working in school since 2001 and teachers are paid equally based on the hours we teach…both men and women are paid the same.
Right now, I work in a non-formal education company as a science teacher (I can’t imagine myself working in a non-teaching company), but all the employee are women, the payment is different based on the level of their work and how long they have been in the company.
Getting paid more because you have stayed longer seems ok to me if the pay you start with is the same. I think in schools there is more transparency, that is the same here. Whn you are a teacher you know more or less how much you will earn and it should be the same for everyone. I think its bad in corporate companies and they blame the women saying the didn’t negotiate like a man does but when you do, and your a woman, they call you greedy. Either way you can’t win.
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