Punk subculture

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The punk subculture, which centres on punk rock music, includes a diverse array of ideologies, fashions and forms of expression, including visual art, dance, literature and film. The subculture is largely characterized by anti-establishment views and the promotion of individual freedom.

Two UK punks in the 1980s


The punk subculture emerged in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia in the mid-1970s. Exactly which region originated punk has long been a major controversy within the movement.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7] Early punk had an abundance of antecedents and influences, and Jon Savage describes the subculture as a "bricolage" of almost every previous youth culture in the Western world since World War II, "stuck together with safety pins".[8] Various musical, philosophical, political, literary and artistic movements influenced the subculture.

In the late 1970s, the subculture began to diversify, which led to the proliferation of factions such as new wave, 2 Tone, pop punk, hardcore punk, No Wave, street punk and Oi!. Hardcore punk, street punk and Oi! sought to do away with the frivolities introduced in the later years of the original punk movement.[9] The punk subculture influenced other underground music scenes such as alternative rock, indie music and crossover thrash.[9] A new movement in the United States became visible in the early and mid-1990s that sought to revive the punk movement, doing away with some of the trappings of hardcore.


The punk subculture is centered on a loud, aggressive genre of rock music called punk rock. Punk rock is usually played by small bands consisting of a vocalist, one or two electric guitarists, an electric bassist and a drummer. In some punk bands, the musicians contribute backup vocals, which typically consist of shouted slogans, choruses or football-style chants.

While most punk rock uses the distorted guitars and noisy drumming that is derived from 1960s garage rock and 1970s pub rock, some punk bands incorporate elements from other subgenres, such as heavy metal, folk rock, surf rock, power pop, rockabilly or reggae. Most punk rock songs are short, have simple and somewhat basic arrangements using relatively few chords, and they have lyrics that express punk ideologies and values, although some punk lyrics are about lighter topics such as partying or relationship drama. Different punk subcultures often distinguish themselves by having a unique style of punk rock, although not every style of punk rock has its own associated subculture.

The earliest form of music to be called "punk rock" was 1960s garage rock, and the term was applied to the genre retroactively by influential rock critics in the early 1970s.[10][11][12][13] In the late 1960s, music now referred to as protopunk originated as a garage rock revival in the northeastern United States.[14] The first distinct music scene to claim the punk label appeared in New York City between 1974 and 1976.[15] Around the same time or soon afterward, a punk scene developed in London, England.[16] Los Angeles subsequently became home to the third major punk scene.[17] These three cities formed the backbone of the burgeoning movement, but there were also other punk scenes in cities such as Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in Australia and Boston in the United States.

The New York City punk rock scene arose from a subcultural underground promoted by artists, reporters, musicians and a wide variety of non-mainstream enthusiasts. The Velvet Underground's harsh and experimental, yet often melodic, sound in the mid to late 1960s, much of it relating to transgressive media work by pop artist Andy Warhol, is credited for influencing 1970s bands such as the New York Dolls, The Stooges and the Ramones.[18] Early New York punk bands were often short-lived, due to widespread use of recreational drugs, promiscuous sex and deep — sometimes violent — power struggles, but the relative popularity of the music led to the evolution of punk into a lifestyle and movement.


A German punk faces a line of riot police at a 1984 protest.
Punks burning a U.S. flag in the early 1980s

Although punks are frequently categorised as having left-wing or progressive views, punk politics cover the entire political spectrum. Punk-related ideologies are mostly concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views. Common punk viewpoints include anti-authoritarianism, a DIY ethic, non-conformity, direct action and not selling out.

Other notable trends in punk politics include nihilism, rebellion, anarchism, individualism, socialism, anti-militarism, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-nationalism, anti-homophobia, environmentalism, vegetarianism, veganism and animal rights. However, some individuals within the punk subculture hold right-wing views (such as those associated with the Conservative Punk website), neo-Nazi views (Nazi punk), or are apolitical (e.g.horror punk).

Early British punks expressed nihilistic views with the slogan No Future, which came from the Sex Pistols song "God Save the Queen". In the United States, punks had a different approach to nihilism based on their "unconcern for the present" and their "disaffection from both middle and working class standards".[citation needed] Punk nihilism was expressed in the use of "harder, more self-destructive, consciousness-obliterating substances like heroin, or ... methamphetamine"[19]

The issue of authenticity is important in the punk subculture—the pejorative term "poseur" is applied to those who associate with punk and adopt its stylistic attributes but are deemed not to share or understand the underlying values or philosophy.


Two UK punks in a train carriage in 1986. Note the hand-stencilled Crass symbol painted on the coat of on the man on the right.
Japanese punk rock musicians

Punks seek to outrage others with the highly theatrical use of clothing, hairstyles, cosmetics, tattoos, jewellery and body modification. Early punk fashion adapted everyday objects for aesthetic effect: ripped clothing was held together by safety pins or wrapped with tape; ordinary clothing was customised by embellishing it with marker or adorning it with paint; a black bin liner became a dress, shirt or skirt; safety pins and razor blades were used as jewellery. Also popular have been leather, rubber, and vinyl clothing that the general public associates with transgressive sexual practices like bondage and S&M.[20]

Some punks wear tight "drainpipe" jeans, plaid/tartan trousers, kilts or skirts, T-shirts, leather jackets (which are often decorated with painted band logos, pins and buttons, and metal studs or spikes), and footwear such as Converse sneakers, skate shoes, brothel creepers, or Dr. Martens boots. Some early punks occasionally wore clothes displaying a Nazi swastika for shock-value, but most contemporary punks are staunchly anti-racist and are more likely to wear a crossed-out swastika symbol. Some punks cut their hair into Mohawks or other dramatic shapes, style it to stand in spikes, and color it with vibrant, unnatural hues.

Some punks are anti-fashion, arguing that punk should be defined by music or ideology. This is most common in the post-1980s US hardcore punk scene, where members of the subculture often dressed in plain t-shirts and jeans, rather than the more elaborate outfits and spiked, dyed hair of their British counterparts. Many groups adopt a look around street clothes and working class outfits. Hardcore punk fans adopted a dressed-down style of T-shirts, jeans, combat boots or sneakers and crewcut-style haircuts. Women in the hardcore scene typically wore army pants, band t-shirts, and hooded sweatshirts.[21] The style of the 1980s hardcore scene contrasted with the more provocative fashion styles of late 1970s punk rockers (elaborate hairdos, torn clothes, patches, safety pins, studs, spikes, etc.). Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris described early hardcore fashion as "the...punk scene was basically based on English fashion. But we had nothing to do with that. Black Flag and the Circle Jerks were so far from that. We looked like the kid who worked at the gas station or submarine shop."[22] Henry Rollins echoes Morris' point, stating that for him getting dressed up meant putting on a black shirt and some dark pants; Rollins viewed an interest in fashion as being a distraction.[23] Jimmy Gestapo from Murphy's Law describes his own transition from dressing in a punk style (spiked hair and a bondage belt) to adopting a hardcore style (shaved head and boots) as being based on needing more functional clothing.[21] A scholarly source states that "hardcore kids do not look like punks", since hardcore scene members wore basic clothing and short haircuts, in contrast to the "embellished leather jackets and pants" worn in the punk scene.[24]

In contrast to Morris' and Rollins' views, one scholarly source claims that the standard hardcore punk clothing and styles included torn jeans, leather jackets, spiked armbands and dog collars and mohawk hairstyles and DIY ornamentation of clothes with studs, painted band names, political statements, and patches.[25] Another scholarly source describes the look that was common in the San Francisco hardcore scene as consisting of biker-style leather jackets, chains, studded wristbands, pierced noses and multiple piercings, painted or tattooed statements (e.g. an anarchy symbol) and hairstyles ranging from military-style haircuts dyed black or blonde, mohawks, and shaved heads.[26]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a comprehensive exhibit; PUNK: Chaos to Couture in 2013 that examined the techniques of hardware, destroy and re-purposing in punk fashion.[27]

Visual art[edit]

Punk aesthetics determine the type of art punks enjoy, usually with underground, minimalistic, iconoclastic and satirical sensibilities. Punk artwork graces album covers, flyers for concerts, and punk zines. Usually straightforward with clear messages, punk art is often concerned with political issues such as social injustice and economic disparity. The use of images of suffering to shock and create feelings of empathy in the viewer is common. Alternatively, punk artwork may contain images of selfishness, stupidity, or apathy to provoke contempt in the viewer.

Much of the earlier artwork was in black and white, because it was distributed in zines reproduced at copy shops. Punk art also uses the mass production aesthetic of Andy Warhol's Factory studio. Punk played a hand in the revival of stencil art, spearheaded by Crass. The Situationists also influenced the look of punk art, particularity that of the Sex Pistols. Punk art often utilises collage, exemplified by the art of Dead Kennedys, Crass, Jamie Reid, and Winston Smith. John Holmstrom was a punk cartoonist who created work for the Ramones and Punk Magazine.

The Stuckism art movement had its origin in punk, and titled its first major show The Stuckists Punk Victorian at the Walker Art Gallery during the 2004 Liverpool Biennial. Charles Thomson, co-founder of the group, described punk as "a major breakthrough" in his art.[28]


Two dance styles associated with punk are pogo dancing and moshing.[29] Stage diving and crowd surfing were originally associated with protopunk bands such as The Stooges, and have appeared at punk, metal and rock concerts. Ska punk promoted an updated version of skanking. Hardcore dancing is a later development influenced by all of the above mentioned styles. Psychobillies prefer to "wreck", a form of slam dancing that involves people punching each other in the chest and arms as they move around the circle pit.


A selection of British and American punk zines, 1994–2004

Punk has generated a considerable amount of poetry and prose. Punk has its own underground press in the form of punk zines, which feature news, gossip, cultural criticism, and interviews. Some zines take the form of perzines. Important punk zines include Maximum RocknRoll, Punk Planet, No Cure, Cometbus, Flipside,and Search & Destroy . Several novels, biographies, autobiographies, and comic books have been written about punk. Love and Rockets is a notable comic with a plot involving the Los Angeles punk scene.

Just as fanzines, often called zines, played an important role in spreading information about different scenes in the punk era (e.g. British fanzines like Mark Perry’s Sniffin Glue and Shane MacGowan’s Bondage), zines also played an important role in the hardcore scene. In the pre-Internet era, zines enabled readers to learn about bands, clubs, and record labels. Zines typically included reviews of shows and records, interviews with bands, letters, and ads for records and labels. Zines were DIY products, "proudly amateur, usually handmade, and always independent" and in the "’90s, zines were the primary way to stay up on punk and hardcore." [30] They acted as the "blogs, comment sections, and social networks of their day."[30] In the American Midwest, the zine Touch and Go described the Midwest hardcore scene from 1979 to 1983.[31] We Got Power described the LA scene from 1981 to 1984, and it included show reviews and band interviews with groups including D.O.A., the Misfits, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies and the Circle Jerks.[32] My Rules was a photo zine that included photos of hardcore shows from across the US.[33] In Effect, which began in 1988, described the New York City scene.[34] Examples of punk poets include: Richard Hell, Jim Carroll, Patti Smith, John Cooper Clarke, Seething Wells, Raegan Butcher, and Attila the Stockbroker. The Medway Poets performance group included punk musician Billy Childish and had an influence on Tracey Emin. Jim Carroll's autobiographical works are among the first known examples of punk literature. The punk subculture has inspired the cyberpunk and steampunk literature genres.


Joe Strummer concert footage from the movie, TV, and radio service Punkcast.

Many punk-themed films have been made, as have punk rock music videos and punk-oriented skateboarding videos. Some punk films intercut stock footage with news clips and amateur videos of concerts. The No Wave Cinema and Remodernist film movements owe much to punk aesthetics. Several famous punk bands have participated in movies, such as the Ramones in Rock 'n' Roll High School, the Sex Pistols in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle and Social Distortion in Another State of Mind. Derek Jarman and Don Letts are notable punk filmmakers. Penelope Spheeris' first installment of the documentary trilogy "The Decline of Western Civilization" (1981) focuses on the early Los Angeles punk scene through interviews and early concert footage from bands including Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Germs and Fear. The third installment of "The Decline of Western Civilization III" explores the gutter punk lifestyle in the 1990s.

Lifestyle and community[edit]

A band plays on the tiny stage at the Berkeley, California punk venue at 924 Gilman Street.

Punks can come from any and all walks of life and economic classes. Compared to some alternative cultures, punk is much closer to being gender equalist in terms of its ideology.[35] Although the punk subculture is mostly anti-racist, it is vastly white (at least in predominantly-white countries). However, members of other groups (such as Blacks, Latinos, and Asians) have also contributed to the development of the subculture.[citation needed] Substance abuse has sometimes been a part of the punk scene, with the notable exception of the straight edge movement. Violence has also sometimes appeared in the punk subculture, but has been opposed by some subsets of the subculture, such as the pacifist strain of anarcho-punk.[36]

The graffiti-covered backstage area at the Gilman Street venue.

Punks often form a local scene, which can have as few as half a dozen members in a small town, or as many as thousands of members in a major city.[37] A local scene usually has a small group of dedicated punks surrounded by a more casual periphery. A typical punk scene is made up of punk and hardcore bands; fans who attend concerts, protests, and other events; zine publishers, band reviewers, and writers; visual artists who create illustrations for zines, posters, and album covers; people who organise concerts, and people who work at music venues or independent record labels.[37] Squatting plays a role in some punk communities, providing shelter and other forms of support. Illegal squats in abandoned or condemned housing and communal "punk houses" sometimes provide bands a place to stay while they are touring. There are some punk communes, such as the Dial House. The Internet has been playing an increasingly larger role in punk, specifically in the form of virtual communities and file sharing programs for trading music files.[38]


In the punk and hardcore subcultures, members of the scene are often evaluated in terms of the authenticity of their commitment to the values or philosophies of the scene, which may range from political beliefs to lifestyle practices. In the punk subculture, the epithet poseur (or "poser") is used to describe "a person who habitually pretends to be something he or she is not." The term is used to refer to a person who adopts the dress, speech, and/or mannerisms of a particular subculture, yet who is deemed to not share or understand the values or philosophy of the subculture.[39][40][41]

While this perceived inauthenticity is viewed with scorn and contempt by members of the subculture, the definition of the term and to whom it should be applied is subjective. An article in Drowned in Sound argues that 1980s-era "hardcore is the true spirit of punk", because "after all the poseurs and fashionistas fucked off to the next trend of skinny pink ties with New Romantic haircuts, singing wimpy lyrics", the punk scene consisted only of people "completely dedicated to the DIY ethics".[42]

Interactions with other subcultures[edit]

Glam rockers such as New York Dolls and David Bowie had big influences on protopunk, early punk rock, and the crossover sub-genre later called glam punk. Particularly, Bowie himself supported the spawing punk bands of this time, and he later said after punk somewhat fell out of fashion, "I think it's a crying shame that the category has dissipated its importance." Punk and hip hop emerged around the same time in the late 1970s New York City, and there has been some interaction between the two subcultures. Some of the first hip hop MCs called themselves punk rockers, and some punk fashions have found their way into hip hop dress. Malcolm McLaren played roles in introducing both punk and hip hop to the United Kingdom. Hip hop later influenced some punk and hardcore bands, such as Hed PE, Blaggers I.T.A., Biohazard, E.Town Concrete, The Transplants and Refused.[43]

The skinhead subculture of the late 1960s – which had almost disappeared in the early 1970s — was revived in the late 1970s, partly because of the influence of punk rock, especially the Oi! punk subgenre. Conversely, ska and reggae, popular among traditionalist skinheads, has influenced several punk musicians. Punks and skinheads have had both antagonistic and friendly relationships, depending on the social circumstances, time period and geographic location.[44]

The punk and heavy metal subcultures have shared some similarities since punk's inception. The early 1970s heavy metal scene had an influence on the development of protopunk. Alice Cooper was a forerunner of the fashion and music of both the punk and metal subcultures. Motörhead, since their first album release in 1977, have had continued popularity in the punk scene, and singer Lemmy is a fan of punk rock. Genres such as metalcore, grindcore and crossover thrash were greatly influenced by punk and heavy metal. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal influenced the UK 82 style of bands like Discharge, and hardcore punk was a primary influence on thrash metal bands such as Metallica and Slayer. The early 1990s grunge subculture was a fusion of punk anti-fashion ideals and metal-influenced guitar sounds. However, hardcore punk and grunge developed in part as reactions against the heavy metal music that was popular during the 1980s.[45]

In punk's heyday, punks faced harassment and attacks from the general public and from members of other subcultures. In the 1980s in the UK, punks were sometimes involved in brawls with Teddy Boys, greasers, bikers, mods and members of other subcultures. There was also considerable enmity between positive punks (known today as goths) and the glamorously dressed New Romantics.

In the late 1970s, punks were known to have had confrontations with hippies due to the contrasting ideologies and backlash of the hippie culture .[citation needed] Nevertheless Penny Rimbaud of the English anarcho-punk band Crass said in interviews, and in an essay called The Last Of The Hippies, that Crass was formed in memory of his friend, Wally Hope.[46] Rimbaud also said that Crass were heavily involved with the hippie movement throughout the 1960s and Seventies, with Dial House being established in 1967. Many punks were often critical of Crass for their involvement in the hippie movement. Like Crass, Jello Biafra was influenced by the hippie movement and cited the yippies as a key influence on his political activism and thinking, though he did write songs critical of hippies.[36][47]

The industrial and rivethead subcultures have had several ties to punk, in terms of music, fashion and attitude.

Power pop music (as defined by groups such as Badfinger, Cheap Trick, The Knack, and The Romantics) emerged in mostly the same time-frame and geographical area as punk rock, and they shared a great deal musically in terms of playing short songs loud and fast while trying to emphasize catchy feelings. More melodic and pop-influenced punk music have also often been wrapped alongside power pop bands under the general "new wave music" label.[48] A good example of a genre-straddling 'power pop punk' band is the popular Northern Ireland group Protex.[49] However, stylistically and lyrically, power pop bands have tended to have a very not-punk top 40 commercial pop influence and a flashier, heavily teen-pop sense of fashion, especially modern power pop groups such as Stereo Skyline and All Time Low.

Global perspectives[edit]

The punk subculture has spread to many countries around the world. The fluidity of musical expression in particular makes it an ideal medium for this cross-cultural interpretation.[50]


In Mexico, punk culture is primarily a phenomenon among middle and upper class youth, many of whom were first exposed to punk music through travel to England.[51] Because of low fees at public universities in Mexico, a significant minority of Mexican punks are university students.[52] It is estimated approximately 5,000 young people are active punks in Mexico City, hosting two or three underground shows a week.[52] These young people often form Chavos banda or youth gangs that organize subculture activity by creating formal meeting spaces and rituals and practices.[53]

Oral nicknames are a distinguishing feature of Mexican punk, where the tradition of oral culture has influenced the development of nicknames for almost all Mexican punks. Patches are widely used as an inexpensive way to alter clothing and express identity. Though English language bands like the Dead Kennedys are well known in Mexico, punks prefer Spanish-language music or covers translated into Spanish. The slam dance style common in the California punk scene of the early 1980s is very popular.[52]

Performance practices reflect socio-economic circumstances of Mexican punks. Called tocadas, shows are generally held in public spaces like basketball courts or community centers instead of places of business like bars and restaurants, as is more common in the United States and Europe. They usually take place in the afternoon and end early to accommodate the three or four hours it takes many punks to return home by public transit. Mexican punk groups rarely release vinyl or CD recordings, preferring cassettes.[52]

Though Mexican punk itself does not have an explicit political agenda, Mexican punks have been active in the Zapatista Movement, Anarcho-punk Movement,[51] and Anti-globalization movement.[52]

Russia and the Soviet Union[edit]

The anti-establishment punk sub-culture has appealed to Russians for decades, with punk media, fashion, and albums becoming enormously popular underground items in the late 1970s onwards. Musically, the sound of punk rock became a clear protest against the disco influenced, heavily electronic official Soviet regime songs. The government suppressed punks and ruthlessly censored their music. An internationally well-known current Russian punk band is Pussy Riot.[54]

South Africa[edit]

Punk arrived slowly in South Africa during the 1970s when waves of British tradesman welcomed by the then-apartheid government brought cultural influences like the popular British music magazine NME.[55] NME was sold in South Africa six weeks after publication.[55] South African punk developed separately in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town and relied on live performances in townships and streets as the multi-racial composition of bands and fan bases challenged the legal and social conventions of the apartheid regime.[55]

Political participation is foundational to punk subculture in South Africa. During the apartheid regime, punk was second only to rock in its importance to multi-racial interactions in South Africa.[55] Because of this involvement in the punk scene was in itself a political statement. Police harassment was common and the government often forced censorship of explicitly political lyrics. Johannesburg based band National Wake was routinely censored and even banned for songs like "International News," which challenged the South African government's refusal to acknowledge the racial and political conflict in the country.[56] National Wake guitarist Ivan Kadey attributes the punk scene's ability to persevere despite the legal challenges of multi-racial mixing to the punk subculture DIY ethic and anti-establishment attitude.[56]

In post-apartheid South Africa, punk has attracted a greater number of white middle-class males. Thabo Mbeki's African Renaissance movement has complicated the position of white South Africans in contemporary society. Punk provides young white men the opportunity to explore and express their minority identity.[57] Cape Town band Hog Hoggidy Hog sings of the strange status of white Africans:

It's my home it's where I'll stay and where I belong
I didn't choose to be here I was born I might seem out of place
but everything I hold dear is under the African sun.[57]

Post-apartheid punk subculture continues to be active in South African politics, organizing a 2000 festival called Punks Against Racism at Thrashers Statepark in Pretoria. Rather than the sense of despondency and fatalism that characterized 1970s British punk subculture, the politically engaged South African scene is more positive about the future of South Africa.[57]


In Peru punk traces its roots to the band Los Saicos, a Lima group that played the unique blend of garage and break dance music that would later be labeled punk as early as the 1960s. The early activity of Los Saicos has led many to claim that punk originated in Lima instead of the UK, as it typically assumed.[7] Though their claim to be the first punk band in the world can be disputed, Los Saicos were undoubtedly the first in Latin America and released their first single in 1965.[58][59] The group played to full houses and made frequent television appearances throughout the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s, the band was completely forgotten. Years later, a plaque that declares "here the global punk-rock movement was born" was placed at the corner of Miguel Iglesias and Julio C. Tello Streets in Lima.[60]

By the 1980s the punk scene in Peru was highly active. Peruvian punks call themselves subtes and appropriate the subversive implications of the English term "underground" through the Spanish term subterraneo (literally, subterranean).[61] In the 1980s and 1990s subtes made almost exclusive use of cassette recording as a means of circulating music without participating in formal intellectual property and musical production industries. The current scene relies on digital distribution and assumes similar anti-establishment practices.[61] Like many punk subcultures, subtes explicitly oppose the Peruvian state and advocate instead an anarchic resistance that challenges the political and mainstream cultural establishment.


The origins of punk rock in Brazil go back to the late 1970s, as in most other countries mainly under the influence of the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Ramones. However, particularly in São Paulo, more obscure names like Dutch band Speed Twins, as well as earlier protopunk artists such as The MC5, Iggy & The Stooges and The New York Dolls also had a big initial impact. The Punk emerged from the ideals of the musician Douglas Viscaino, who imbued with the pioneering ideas and unity of young people that fought against the Brazilian military regime, formed a band of protest called: Restos de Nada. The first band appeared around 1978, notably Restos de Nada (meaning remnants of nothing). Their musicians already had their punk ideals before 1978. Getting bigger with the passage of the 1970s. Then came AI-5 and N.A.I. (later known as Condutores de Cadáver) in São Paulo (biggest city of the country), as well as Carne Podre in Curitiba (capital of Paraná State) and Aborto Elétrico in Brasília (Brazilian capital). Before proper punk groups came along, two relatively famous Glam/Hard Rock bands, Joelho de Porco and Made in Brazil, used elements of the punk aesthetic around 1977/78 and were called punk bands by the media without really playing punk rock music or defining themselves as such. Both bands, however, were important to the pre-punk context of the 1970s that offered few alternatives to the Música popular brasileira (mainly known as MPB) and Progressive Rock artists that dominated the Brazilian music scene at the time. Joelho de Porco's lyrics dealing with São Paulo's urban reality was also influential.


In the late 2000s, punk rock faced harsh criticism in Indonesia's province of Aceh. Punk rock is seen as a threat to Islamic values and, according to authorities, conflicts with Shariah law.[62]

See also[edit]


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