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History, Time, and Utopia: Some Reflections

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.” (Henry David Thoreau)

The above is a passage from Thoreau’s Walden. What is Thoreau calling into question in this passage? Nothing short of the sense of irreversibility that governs our ordinary understanding of time and historicity.

Indeed if time moves irreversibly ahead, then we may well be on a “descending and darkening way.” Our being in time is redeemable only if we can escape this inexorable movement. Does that mean that, as Plato seems to advocate in the Phaedo, that we have to liberate ourselves from temporality? On the other hand, Thoreau seems to be saying that a person who is out to redeem time by escaping it has already “despaired of life.”

Time itself, Thoreau implies, opens up another possibility. If we have not despaired already, we may realize that in fact time does not move irreversibly forward because each day is “earlier” than the one that went before. How early? The “auroral hour,” while not outside time, does not refer to any prior historical moment since any such moment is located on the “descending and darkening” path that has to be escaped. The “auroral hour” of which Thoreau speaks is time before history. This kind of time is not irreversible; rather it recurs each immemorial morning.

The beginning returns eternally even if caught within historicity. But we fail to be present to this temporality of nature, perhaps because nature itself has been historicized by our appropriation of it. For this is the nature that emerges fresh from the hands of the gods. Thoreau speaks of the morning as “the most memorable season of the day.” Having returned to the origin, one no longer needs to hark back to it. Only when it has been lost, in the middle of the day, one needs to remember it. In the auroral hour one neither harkens back to a previous time, nor does one orient oneself in terms of a future that has not yet arrived: one is present in the present and present to all that is present in it.

The above begs the question: why is this presence located in the past? Why, in order to locate it are we required to leave the present with which we are familiar? For the simple reason that historicity has so displaced “natural time” that it has become almost inaccessible. Why is then historicity a “descending and darkening way”? Because it signifies the deconstruction of presence by the future. We do not live in the present at all but subordinate it into a means of “getting ahead.” Within historical time, work views the present from the point of view of a goal to be reached, it displaces leisure which alone allows the presence of what is present to manifest itself without reference to any “in order to.”

In other words, appropriation of what is present takes precedence of contemplation of it, the use of things over appreciation of them. Historicity can be equated with profanation, rationalized as practical necessity. But it is a history which does not harken to beginnings (as Vico’s historicity certainly does) but is searches anxiously into petrified documents with a particular goal in mind.

Underlying that kind of rationalization is the drive to get ahead. What are we trying to get ahead of and what are we trying to get behind us? What prompts us to look past presence and privilege the future? This desire to get ahead, an integral part of any ideology of progress, seemed to Thoreau a kind of demonic appetite which enslaves the human heart. The image of historicity as a dark descent would suggest that Thoreau conceives of our being as caught in a tragic fall. Back to the garden of Eden.

For Thoreau, it is difficult but not impossible to awaken from the nightmare of history by retrieving the original experience which it has ruptured. Walden appears as sacred scripture, because it details the practice of this retrieval and does so via a poetic naturalistic language.

However, this account seems to have fallen prey to the metaphysics of presence which a modern philosopher such as Derrida has deconstructed in such a devastating way. For in fact, Thoreau’s project of escaping historicity and retrieving natural time seems to require our believing not only that our origin exists but that it is separable from all that derives from it; i.e., the privileging of being over historicity, the natural over the cultural, the signified over signifiers; it promises us to avoid deconstruction. But this promise can be fulfilled only if the dichotomy between “natural time” and historicity is tenable; only if time is not a “descending and darkening way,’ only if deconstruction is not immanent within time itself. This is precisely what Derrida (as well as Heidegger) call into question.

Let us therefore test Thoreau’s experience of the “auroral hour” with the Derridarian critique. This is not easy because Thoreau does not describe it literally but simply evokes it through hints and intimations, for he believes that it cannot be rendered any other way. It is not a matter of the intellect, but of the heart. We do not awaken to it by opening our eyes, but by becoming wonderers. Amazement attends to what is right here in front of us. This is in contrast to the attitude of practicality which notices nothing of the present except to achieve future goals.

When wonder arrives however, it interrupts everything else. This is the experience we lived once as children, but eventually lost when we fell prey to the restlessness of practicality. Wonder is wholly absorbed in and by the presence of that is present before it, and appreciates it for its own sake, instead of profaning it as a mere means.

All genuine philosophy begins in wonder, for immanent within it is an awareness of the world as sacred; implicit in that sacred character is the imperative that it be reverenced. This is the ab-original religious experience and without it no civilization is possible. The child in us is aware that there is more than what is right in front of us; there are intimations that move us and transport us out of ourselves.

It is like falling in love with the world the way a St. Francis of Assisi fell in love with it in total self-abandonment. What did Francis abandon himself to? To the “more” that is both immanent within the present and other than it, the not yet, a wholly unknown and unforeseeable future. Far from fixating us in the present, original amazement transports us beyond itself. As Thoreau renders it: “when we are really walking, we go forth…in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return…” (From Walking). So the deconstruction of the present is the very condition for the possibility of ex-static wonder. The metaphysics of presence causes us to misconstrue this experience.

Thoreau helps us to deconstruct it by evoking the experience in such a way that the deconstruction immanent within it is allowed to emerge. For humans, there is no original presence, no being antecedent to temporality, no time except from historicity. The breakthrough into the unpresenceable future is what is ab-original for us in as much as the very nature of our being is to be wonderers.

What becomes then of the dichotomy between “natural time” and historicity on which Thoreau’s spirituality depends? To answer the question we need to look a bit more closely at what Thoreau sees as the characteristic of our historicity: goal seeking. When we are working toward a goal we subordinate the present to the future. When goal achievement becomes a way of life the danger is that each goal becomes a means to another goal and no arrival is ever final. Goal seeking approaches the future with a destination in view and a plan for reaching it.

This meticulous measuring and planning is the pride and joy of all rationalists. The planning prescribes the shape of our historicity. It aims at controlling the future. Paradoxically, the achievement of any particular goal becomes less important than the overriding project of control itself within the assumed framework of “inevitable progress” and its corollary belief that what is newest is always the best. What will matter the most is not so much getting to the goal but making progress and “getting ahead.”

However, the unforeseeable future usually intrudes. It is radically heterogeneous from the present. We approach the future with a master plan in the hope of repressing this heterogeneity and obtaining a future that will not be destructive or deconstructive; that is to say, one that we can control. In other words, goal-seeking wishes to prevent the future from breaking upon the present in a way that would deconstruct it. Implicit in this desire to prevent this deconstruction is a nostalgia for a present insulated from the future. Working hard to get ahead is a way of trying to bet back to a present that the future has not yet deconstructed.

Thoreau would have us withdraw from historicity in order to immerse ourselves in an undefiled present. But that risks confusing the attempt to control the future with living in relationship to it. For to live wholly in the present means exactly to be caught in the unforeseeable which is immanent within the present as a disruption, i.e., being present to the future. A present insulated from the possibility of this fracture would not be a temporal present; it would be outside or before time. This longing to immerse ourselves in such a present is the equivalent of a desire to control the future. In both case we seek to escape temporality.

We may ask: why does our historicity take the form of trying to repress the future by controlling it? Because to wholeheartedly embrace what is right-here-and now-in front of us as an unknown that transcends us and beckons us to a response requires letting go of that which is right-here-and now-in front of us, thus relinquishing our toehold on the present and abandoning ourselves to the unforeseeable without efforts to control it. Indeed, irrespective of what the future holds in store for us, opening ourselves to it in its radical heterogeneity is a radical disruption, a sort of death.

Thoreau puts it thus: “We should go forth…in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdom. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready to walk” (Walking). This kind of walking does not bring one back to an original natural time. It leads straight into a historicity that requires leaving home, and abandoning all hope of ever returning.

The home we do not wish to leave is presence undefiled by the future. We have never been there, and yet we dread departing from it even though this departure is what we are. We desperately try to make historicity conform to our plan for it so as to relieve the dread. A goal-oriented life is not open to the future; it attempts to get ahead of time itself, so as to prevent it from devastating us. The alternative to historicity as we ordinarily live it is not to returning to natural time but abandoning ourselves to historicity rather than trying to control it. Surely it requires the ascesis of dispossession which Thoreau prescribes and St. Francis well knew, but this ascesis leads into history, not away from it.

The ecstasy of being transported out of ourselves is inseparable from the anguish of departure. Think of the myth of Europa and the scene of goddess Europa departing for good on top of a black bull (Zeus in disguise). We may ask: is she being transported out of herself in ecstasy? On the way we answer that question hangs the whole issue of the cultural identity of Europe. For the fullness of the present can be experienced only in so far as we abandon ourselves to the future what is immanent within it.

It can easily be argued that no time has been obsessed with controlling historicity as our own. What we ended up getting was Machiavellian real-politik where the end justifies any means. This drive at control is intensified by the painful realization that we do not control time and that there is no higher providence that will do it for us as the founding fathers of the United States surely believed. So we feel abandoned in history and abandoned to it. The intensity of this abandonment drives us to control the dreaded heterogeneity of the future; but the more control is achieved, the less history becomes possible.

Enter Francis Fukuyama who postulates an end of history when historicity is an anachronism and everything will be under control; that is to say, a future time in which the future will have been abolished. Enter George Orwell with his 1984. Enter Henry Ford with his “history is bunk.” Thoreau for one would strongly argue that we must try to escape such madness and go back to a time when the present was not held hostage to the inevitable progress as conceived by our present day rationalists dubbed by Vico “barbarians of the intellect.” It is therein that lies the prostitution of our very humanity.

One parting thought: there is an alternative to both the myth of the undefiled presence and the utopia (or dystopia) of a wholly controlled future, which is to say, the alternative to getting behind time and getting ahead of it. The alternative is to live within historicity itself as Vico has well taught us. To live in the present as it is broken open to and by the future.

The difficulty, in my opinion, is that the obsession with measurement and control has become so pervasive within positivist modernity that the very existence of the future in its heterogeneity seems to be in jeopardy. Within the problematic times we live in, nothing is held out to us, except the utterly unforeseeable wonder, the possibility of something impossible to anticipate. Both Thoreau and Vico teach us that to live fully in the present is to abandon ourselves to this possibility of something impossible to anticipate.

Indeed, to live fully in the present is to abandon ourselves to this possibility instead of wishing to avoid it or control it. We desperately need to learn what Thoreau calls “the art of walking,” but even here he would claim hat our power to do so depends on what used to be called grace, over which we also have no control.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

The Sustainable State- Book Review

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Chandran Nair’s new book, The Sustainable State, is a response to runaway consumption by a rapidly expanding world populace. He explains how the rise in living standards, especially in the developing world, is soaring an unsustainable demand for everything from meat, to cars, to modern housing and then gives possible solutions.

Nair reminds me of economist Ha-Joon Chang in both his premise and the evidence he uses to defend it.  Both scholars are highly critical of the current economic ecosystem and the multinational corporations that run it.  Nair points out that the major industries of today are what’s causing the unprecedented environmental crises that we’re experiencing today.  Not only are corporations polluting the environment and depleting natural resources, but are also covering it up and blocking possible legislative antidotes.

Thus, Nair endorses Ha-Joon Chang’s solution: East Asian-style state regulation of the economy.  Since corporations will never voluntarily do anything that will hurt their profits, a strong federal government must force them to do so through laws that have the planet’s future in mind.  The book points out that the manufacturing and sales costs of consumer products don’t reflect their full cost.  For instance, a roll of toilet paper cost the forest it came from a tree; deforestation has existentially high long-term costs to Earth’s inhabitants.  Anything produced for or shipped to market cost the world through energy consumption, if nothing else.  Thus, Nair supports making producers pay for the full cost of their merchandise through programs such as cap-and-trade and reforestation taxes.

The book gives several examples of (generally East Asian) countries and cities trying to regulate their way to higher sustainability, with varying degrees of success.  For instance, China has arguably become the world leader in terms of environmental initiatives through tough laws governing pollution and a long-term environmental strategy.  In China’s Youyu County, they went from having under 1% of land forested in 1949 to over half today.  Singapore has largely staved off the kind of affordable-housing crisis seen in major cities and city-states by instituting a comprehensive public housing system.  Jakarta, on the other hand, has struggled in their efforts to reduce their crippling traffic congestion.  For instance, when they created 3-person minimum carpool lanes, car owners simply hired pairs of people to meet the requirement.  When Jakarta changed to an odd-even license-number congestion scheme, people simply bought extra license plates.

This book fits in nicely in the post-Trump, post-Brexit era in its skepticism of Western democracy.  Example after example is given of Western government ineptitude towards environmental management, from oil lobbyists’ consistent ability to kill or water down regulations, to general short sidedness.  India’s democracy is also criticized for its failure to clean up the Ganges, among other things.  Nair has a lot of praise for single-party governments in China, Vietnam and Singapore in their recent environmental policy records.

He stresses that he isn’t anti-democratic per se, but rather, he can’t ignore the trends.  Most Western democracies are currently neutered by partisan deadlock, lobbyist money and a myopic obsession with the short term, due to the nature of the election cycle.  Single-party states, by definition, have no partisan deadlock, aren’t reliant upon lobbyist money for re-election and can implement policies that may piss off their constituents in the short term, but are critical for the future.  The recommendation is thus given that democracies stick up to corporate interests and institute long-term policies that will meaningfully address the environmental issues of the future.

The Sustainable State is sobering in its assessment of our current state of resource depletion and global warming, but also cautiously optimistic in its faith that government, when acting in good faith, can curb the excesses of industry and regenerate the planet.  There are diagnoses for specific problems, such as the wildfire haze that emanates from Borneo every year and for pollution.  The main omission of the book is in regards to the water crisis.  Nair mentions high-efficiency circular farming and water pollution, but otherwise largely ignores the disturbingly low supply of water for drinking and farming.  This deficit has already sparked conflicts in countries such as Syria and will only snowball as the population continues to explode.  Desert countries and landlocked countries will eventually succumb civil war over access to water, creating a refugee crisis that the world has never seen, if radical and affordable solutions aren’t found for supplying water for consumption and irrigation.

Chandran Nair gives plenty of real-life examples of good policies that are mitigating issues and explains why they are successful.  Oftentimes, the solution lies in the checkbook.  Governments can spend money on decades-long programs, corporations can pay through sustainability taxes and individuals can pay through gas taxes and car ownership caps.  In democratic and nondemocratic nations alike, we the people must push our leaders to do more, for the future of the human species.

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New Social Compact

In Northern Nigeria, Online Skills Help Youth, Women Tap New Opportunities

MD Staff

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A mother holds her baby during the Click-On Kaduna Workshop held recently in Northern Nigeria. Photo: World Bank

Rashidat Sani lost her job when she was pregnant with her child.  Now a nursing mother, she has been unable to find flexible employment that would allow her to take care of her baby and earn a living.

That was before Sani attended the Click-On-Kaduna digital skills workshop earlier this year, which helped her become an “e-lancer;” a self-employed contractor who can work various online jobs.

“This workshop has been perfect for me,” said Sani. “I can stay home and take care of my baby while working on my computer. I can’t thank the organizers enough.”

Sani is one of more than 900 young people who attended the three-day workshop designed to help young Northern Nigerians tap into the digital job market. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the workshop was created by the Kaduna State government and the World Bank to increase job opportunities for the country’s youth—which currently makes up more than half its population—and decrease youth unemployment which has risen to 33%.

“There are nine million people in Kaduna State, 75% of whom are below 35,” said Muhammad Sani Abdullahi, Commissioner of Budget and Planning for Kaduna State. “There are also roughly 70,000 government jobs in the state and this cannot meet up with the job deficit.”

The hands-on workshop aimed to give unemployed and underemployed youth, women, and disadvantaged groups some of the tools needed to compete in the online job market. Sessions included practical trainings on how to set up an online profile, build a personal brand, negotiate a fair compensation, and land a first job. The workshop also provided opportunities for participants—nearly half of them women—to interact with e-lancing platforms like Upwork, a key partner of Click-On Kaduna, as well as several local platforms such as Efiko, Asuqu, MotionWares, or Jolancer.

In the last decade, digital technology has disrupted the global economy and fostered the creation of countless new markets, products, platforms, and services. Among the innovations, there has been a rise of online freelancing platforms which have enabled disadvantaged people across skills, gender and income levels to overcome physical and socio-economic barriers to earn an income through the Internet.

In Nigeria, unemployment rates have increased from 11.92 to 15.99 million in 2017, with the youth reported to be the most affected. This is further aggravated in Northern Nigeria due to its fragility and where the educational and economic infrastructures remain inadequate.

Kaduna State, located in the northern part of the country, faces these challenges. Plagued by years of endemic violence, government leaders recognize the importance of creating jobs for its young people, and the immense opportunities the digital economy offers.

Boutheina Guermazi, World Bank Director for Digital Development, said the global digital economy has given rise to a massive new market facilitated by digital platforms that are accessible to anyone who has access to the Internet.

“It is helping to promote inclusion by creating economic opportunities for youth in fragile states by equipping them with the skills needed to improve their social welfare regardless of their gender and income levels” she said. “These new income-generating opportunities need to be leveraged to create and connect people with jobs, especially women in the North who often do not have equal access to markets and jobs.”

Building on the success of the workshop, the Bank and Upwork rec+ently launched a pilot program that aims to kickstart the online careers of about 150 job seekers, expose them to more and better jobs, and contribute to Click-On-Kaduna’s sustainability and long-term impact.

Each of the selected participants will be given five tasks created under the Upwork pilot program. Once successfully completed, they will be paid for their work and rated, increasing their competitiveness for jobs on the platform. Participants will also be provided with further opportunities for mentoring and capacity building from Upwork while receiving payment for their work.

“I did not even have any idea of Upwork in the first place if it had not been for Click-On Kaduna,” said Nehemiah John, who participated in the workshop and the pilot program. “Aside from [participating in] the pilot project I am about to round a [new] contract with a client on Upwork. He requested a t-shirt design which I have done, and he liked it.”

The outcomes of the pilot program will continue to be monitored by Upwork and the Bank team, with the goal of increasing the number of people able to access online jobs and increase their incomes.

World Bank

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New Social Compact

Wedlocks in Kashmir’s landscape

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Marriage is a sacred institution in the human societies. Down the passing phases of time, the human beings have tied knots of man and woman in pairs to continue the order of the universe. God created human being in pairs and created humans out of those predecessors. This is even today the order of the nature and will remain so forever.

Marriage is a social and legal contract where man and woman are tied in a holy knot under the auspices of religious principles of Nikkah,as in Islam to carry forward the legacy of humans and human beings. Marriage is a pious knot that brings a man and a woman together forever to created an edifice of support for one another in times of need pain happiness, good and bad, nothing and something etc and is equated with one half of the Muslims faith. Marriage holds a vibrant symbolic significance in that people still want to marry and revere the institution. Overall it is said that the institution of marriage gives peace and order to the life of the man and Islam is in fact testimony to that bizarre fact.

Marriages form a major component of our Kashmiri culture which have come a long way since times immemorial. Marriages in Kashmir have undergone a fundamental transformation. In simpler terms, the age of marriage has risen. During the past times, the marriages in Kashmir were performed in an atmosphere of extravaganza where a lot of food and dishes were wasted and those nostalgic memories are perhaps etched to one and all if one recalls the memoirs of the past life. However today a civic and moral sense has prevailed among the masses where lavishness is slowly and steadily losing grip in our society and austerity is taking the substitution there of. Even the persons who accompany the groom towards the bride’s house have been reduced to few.The guests are also nowadays restricted in our society.It is a good gesture and a positive step towards development of society in Kashmir.

In an interview to India today T.V. few years back, i reteriated and favoured the stance of the government regarding ban on lavish marriages in Kashmir and guest control.

However the major problem that besets our marriages in Kashmir is the night long overuse of loudspeakers and subsequent firecrackers at the time of bharat reception. Suppose a person is suffering from disease and is ill, a student has examinations next day, a pregnant woman is expecting a child and the neighbours marriage causes the trouble. It becomes a major sin and music is prohibited in islam as wrong(haram).This ultimately causes trouble to one and sundry. Above the social plane lies the plank of moral conduit. We need to totally stop the use of loudspeakers during mehandirats. Although women can sing in pairs through get together.

Today, when our valley is under the grip of political violence and chaos and uncertainity has become order of the day, people need to show a religious and responsible civic sense and say goodbye to lavish marriages, particularly the menace of dowry in Kashmir.When parents of affluent give huge gifts and dowry to their daughters on their marriages,it causes roadblocks for the poor and disadvantaged sections of the societies and hinders their marriage prospectus..After all, it is the questions of our sisters. A parent who raises a girl child and marries him to a different person knows the pains of departure. Girls need to be respected and cared. They are not the property of their in-laws. There must be regard for the sacrifice of the women’s parents and the bride itself.

According to a famous Hadith, Prophet Muhammad SAW says that a marriage is performed on the basis of four factors. Some marry for the prestige of the caste some marry for the financial prospectus, some marry for the beauty of the girl and others marry for the character of the girl.Our beloved Prophet Muhammad SAW says that we need to focus and keep the last factor that is character of the girl in consideration for the to be married man.

In contravention, in our valley the parents are wary of the future of their daughters and want and wish to marry their daughters to the government employees. How many parents ask about the past, character, morality of the man.Be he a morally bankrupt but he should be a government employee. How sad and pathetic? Besides, the daughters are pushed towards late marriages on account of getting education and other factors.It is good to have education,but age factor matters. Parents should rather focus on the humbleness, compassion, character of the to-be grooms. Delaying marriage until personal and professional goals are achieved is a illogical response of our society.

Today,our society has degraded enormously. Our youth are under the grip of a moral disaster and soaked in immoral acts. The problem of late marriages has already aggravated and compounded the problem. The late marriages have given rise to various social problems and ills. Parents should marry off their wards once they become adults and attain maturity. God is responsible for their future. This will prevent our society from moral ills and our society will metamorphosize into a moral hub of social order. Unfortunately, we lack marriage planning  and counseling centers in Kashmir. Besides, there is no problem if parents ask about the choice of their wards. Compatibility is a vital factor and golden rule in marriage.

The money which we spent on the lavish marriages can be exploited for the overall good and development of our society.The poor can be helped via this mode. This will make our society a just and humane and also please our creator Allah SWT.

Post-marriage step is a crucial phase in the life of a man. According to John D Gray, men are like rubber bands and women have a wavy nature. The married men and women ought to understand each other and have a regard for each other and their families. Patience is the essence of life. Differences can arise, but it is the role of the married persons to annihilate the crisis that makes inroads almost in everybody’s life day-in and day-out and display a calm attitude thereof.

Kashmir history is witness to the fact that in some cases ,the demand of dowry ruins the marital bond during post-marriage time.In some cases, the daughters have committed suicide or have been dragged towards the same under the circumstances. There should be a total ban on the use of dowry in Kashmir. Government should rope in a permanent ordinance to ban lavish marriages and dowry in Kashmir. I was stunned when recently in a facebook post,it came to light that thousands of girls are unmarried in Kashmir. What causes that and who is to be blamed? Let’s ponder over it….One day we have to answerable before Allah SWT about our worldly deeds as this life is too short.

The parents which raise a child in the hope of pillar of support tomorrow need to be respected and regarded by the daughter-in-laws. The in-laws become the parents of the women after marriage and they need to treat them equally in that perspective and kind regard. This creates a healthy atmosphere in the lives of couples during post-married life and turns as boost in arm to solidify their strength of oneness forever. Marriage is more than being together. It is a responsibility in vogue, vis-a-vis the creator and created. We can’t turn a blind eye to this raw fact. This is all about the conjugal commitments.

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