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Reductionism, Modernity and Nihilism in Western Civilization: Should Aristotle be Resurrected?

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“Cogito, ergo sum” (Descartes)

But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.” (From Pascal’s Pensèes, 346)

There is an unfortunate tendency within our hubristic modern times to reduce and explain a higher reality by a lower one. Philosophically, it goes by the name of Reductionism. For example, the Resurrection of Christ will be explained away scientifically or positivistically by the phenomenon of springtime and its attendant rabbits, flowers, eggs and the general resurrection of nature, thus transforming a spiritual reality into a material one. The cart has been placed before the horse, when the proper approach ought to be that those natural phenomena in springtime point to, or are a symbol, a metaphor, if you will, of a transcendent spiritual reality.

Indeed, great errors as well as great advances have been made during the formative years of the birth of early modern science. Since the 17th century, right after the Renaissance and beginning with Copernicus and Galileo, many significant novelties make their way in the world by indiscriminate criticism of what had gone before. The new is praised without measure, the old is debunked, and the claimed relevance of new discoveries is extended analogously without careful argument into ever more areas. Thus it was in the seventeenth century: this is the heart of Pascal’s complaint against the narrowness of Descartes’ mathematical-geometrical definition of reality.

In one of his last lectures before his death eight years ago titled “The Mind and its Now” Stanley Jake, a leading philosopher of Science had this to say about the mistake of Descartes’ “cogito”: “There can be no active mind without its sensing its existence in the moment called now. The realization of this is the driving force of modern philosophy from Descartes’ cogito on. Without suspecting that the cogito, a personal reflective act, cannot be a starting point of knowledge, he took it for such. He failed to realize that it is not possible to know without knowing something. One tries in vain to cogitate without cogitating about something. And that something has to be a thing before one is cogitating though never in separation from a thing.”

Perhaps no greater mistake was made than in the matter of Aristotle. Early on it was clear that an Aristotelian account of physics or the heavens was no longer adequate. Naturally enough, this led to decreasing study of the Aristotelian texts, and with time to a decreasing sense of how and why Aristotle had framed central questions such as the nature of causation and teleology. We are on the way to a certain insistence in modern science that the proper study of science is the natural order, and not anything “behind” it, God, metaphysics, or finality. That is, we are on the way to a “surface” understanding of what the natural order is.

Since the credibility of his physics had been damaged, an assumption against Aristotle’s thought in general grew in scientific circles. Many thought Aristotle’s ideas about causality were implicated in the inadequacy of his physics. An argument of the present essay is that Aristotle’s thought about causation, especially final causality, articulated issues that will not go away. Though his thought has been largely ignored in recent centuries, and is not the last word, it is of permanent significance and should not have been jettisoned with more problematic aspects of his thinking during the years of the origin of modern science. Here again, the baby was thrown out with the dirty water.

Aristotle’s History of Animals provides a good entrance to his thought. Here he distinguished between simple and composite parts. Simple or homogeneous parts have a uniform nature: flesh is composed of pieces of flesh. Composite or heterogeneous parts do not have a uniform nature: a hand is not made of hands, but of a variety of parts. So it is for the entire animal. The interesting question is how an animal, once formed, is to be viewed. Aristotle’s preference was first to describe the completely formed animal (in today’s terminology, synchronically), and then the historical process by which the animal had been formed (in today’s terminology, ontogenesis or diachronically). This preference articulated his insight that by definition it was only the fully formed animal that expressed everything that the animal could be, that is, that defined the animal. Hence his emphasis on final causality, which looks to the end (telos) of whatever is to be defined.

For most biologists or zoologists today this is backwards. They commonly think of the parts as what is most basic to an animal, and are reluctant to speak at the level of the organism, let alone of an organic form which reveals purpose. To understand is to take apart, not to see the whole. To wit, Eisnstein’s famous statement: our era is characterized by perfections of means and confusion of goals. This is the perspective famously criticized by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Lewis dreamed of “a ‘regenerate science’ of the future that would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole.” To this regeneration one can add a science that would also remember history and origins. Not for nothing Vico dubbed his philosophy of history a new science.

Here debate about the criteria for defining the origins of humanity has centered on consciousness as a sure index of the appearance of man. There are no graves in the animal world, only humans construct them. But graves are an indication that humans have understood that they will die, are conscious of their finiteness. The idea of transcendence has appeared: “It is not necessarily with the use of tools that human existence begins, but rather with metaphysics.” The higher animals can use tools as it has been observed lately, but only man can transcend himself. This was already Pascal’s point in his famous “man is a thinking reed” passage (Pensées, 346): “But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”

To anyone who knows anything at all about Giambattista Vico’s The New Science (1725), Pascal’s and the paleontologists’ observations on burial of the dead, are not new. Vico’s views have become the base from which Robert Pogue Harrison has launched a contemporary reflection on burial of the dead, and the relation of the dead to the living. Harrison is essentially in agreement with the paleontologists: humanity “is a way of being mortal and relating to the dead. To be human means above all to bury.” Religion and the idea of a transcendent reality are grounded in the burial of the dead which points to it. Humans have about them a “history-making mortality,” the aboriginal sign of which is the grave marker.

All this is very much in agreement with a line of thought developed by John Lukacs, who has been arguing throughout a series of books that scientific materialism has it completely backwards. It is not matter that produces mind, but human consciousness that shapes everything. It is nonsense to talk about humans as anything but at the center of reality, for it is humans who are conscious and can speak of centers. And humans have no choice as conscious beings other than to be at the center. This is the deep significance of Aristotle’s “anthropomorphism”: his option to privilege human experience epistemically.

In showing the many limitations of Darwinism, Lukacs goes further than some of the paleontologists, arguing for the incoherence of the application of the idea of evolution ever further backwards in time, one result of which has been the claim that humans existed as much as a million years ago. The hidden assumption here is the materialist one that matter preceded human mind, mind only gradually appearing. Lukacs has no patience with this “dribs and drabs” theory, and rejects the very idea of a “pre-historic” man. Humans are defined by the fact that they are historic or conscious beings, beings defined by historicity, conscious beings oriented in time. They have no pre-history, only history.

From such materials Michael Schulz has brilliantly constructed a counter-cultural position. Schulz argues that the very terminology “cosmos” or “universe” makes no sense other than as expressed by a human. It is indeed true that the earth is a minor planet, and that in one sense the universe has no center. But statements such as these are not possible without the man who makes them. In this sense, as the surveyor of reality, man is its center. As Albert Einstein and Henri Poincaré insisted, the only time we have is our time. The very notion of history must be human-centered.

In both Vico’s and Lukac’s provocative formulation, “We did not create the universe. But the universe is our invention” and it has a history and a development and a purpose. The universe’s unity appears to, and in some sense depends on, a conscious perceiver. Berkeley adds to this the notion that without a perceiver there is no existence either. Schulz in some respects goes further than Lukacs the historian. He asserts that “One does not become more objective by attempting to gain a neutral perspective from which to view finitude in abstraction from the human knower, which in any event is epistemologically impossible. If the cosmos can be grasped as cosmos only in man, and if independently from man it does not even exist (at least as cosmos), then the most objective view of the world is given within the horizon of man’s orientation to God . . . . If the ultimate meaning of the essence of the cosmos is dependent upon the reality of man, then the cosmos with man is qualitatively more than it is without him.”

Only by standing in a relation with God can man talk of such things as the unity of the world, of categories such as infinity and finiteness. Perhaps it is time to revive the ancient medieval idea of man as microcosm. That is, there are two further, related, considerations: (1) what the unity of the universe is correlative to is an embodied consciousness—and, as far as we know, man is the thing that fulfills that role; (2) this is not just phenomenological, but ontological. This I take it, was the intuition expressed in the idea of man as microcosm. Schulz develops the question of the early history of humans somewhat differently than does Lukacs. For Schulz, who accepts evolutionary theory, the question is not so much whether we may properly speak of human beings where there is no human consciousness, but the way in which history articulates all that it is to be human. He writes that “Evolution . . . testifies to the anthropocentric character of the cosmos . . . evolutionary development ends up with ever more complex structures. The more the complexity grows, the more we are able to distinguish between an interior and an exterior in a living being, and the more the form of subjectivity takes shape.”

In sum, as Vico points out in New Science, though humans initially may not have appeared with a high degree of consciousness nor much historical sense, they are “not bound up with the things of this world in an absolute way like the animals. Man is . . . a creature of transcendence; this creature is the window through which the cosmos ‘sees’ its origin.

To sum up, a number of ancient thinkers observed that there is a fit between nature and consciousness. This valuable observation did not lead to an anthropocentric view of the world in the modern sense that human consciousness is a pre-condition for knowledge; but the mixed blessing of the modern “turn to the subject” now allows us to see the centrality of human consciousness in organizing the world. It is not that there is no organization without human consciousness, that the universe is not already a universe before we know it, one that we are “fit” to understand, but that human consciousness is apparently the only vehicle by which such organization can be discovered. This makes humans central to the very idea that there is a universe, and themselves a kind of microcosm. Among the forms of organization and pattern they can discover is the “immanent teleology” of heterogeneous beings, already known to Aristotle, but largely disparaged in the years of the birth of modern science, along with serious debasement of the understanding of causation from being a category of analysis to being one of temporal relation.

Though Aristotle is not the last word on any of these issues, and his discoveries have to be expanded to give greater consideration to the place of the relations of things both to each other and to God, the contemporary rediscovery of certain categories of purpose—in particularly in biology—represents a great advance on the mechanistic world we have inherited from the age of Descartes. Purpose is not to be viewed as simply something extrinsic to individual living things, but as also something intrinsic to them, a description of their capacity for self-maintenance as wholes. What is now needed is a synthesis that overcomes the dichotomy “intrinsic/extrinsic” to show that all heterogeneous living beings have not just an intrinsic and extrinsic ordering, but an order that is at once both. This is mirrored in Vico’s concept of Providence which is both transcendent, i.e., beyond space and time, and at the same time immanent within history.

Hence, with his insistence on consciousness and history as intrinsic to man’s humanity and even to the point of it all of the cosmos (its logos), Vico is the first philosopher and humanist to detect the enormity of Descartes’s blunder at the origins of modern philosophy, and to suggest a possible remedy. Three hundred years or so later the Vichian diagnosis of that error remains valid; unfortunately, the prognosis remains to be applied and those who claim that Vico’s new science has nothing to do with history and wish to claim that his science is based either Plato’s forms or Descartes’s abstract mathematical cogito as the origins of all that is new and progressive and modern are not part of the solution but very much part of the problem.

N.B. This article appeared in Ovi magazine on 28 April 2011. It was relevant then, it is even more relevant now.

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 Death News of Sidharth Shukla: In the remembrance of Sidnaaz

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For most individuals, the death news of Sidharth Shukla seems implausible. Sidharth Shukla, popular actor, and 13 winner Bigg Boss died on Thursday 2 September suffering a severe cardiac arrest at Cooper Hospital in Mumbai.  Actor Sidharth constantly challenged the odds in his profession. For many in the TV and movie sector, it is a last-ditch and sometimes fruitless effort to stop a slide into irrelevance in the popular reality program Bigg Boss. But Shukla was the household name that became a feather reality TV sensation for himself who won the 13th show edition in 2019. For the first time, Shukla entered the television limelight, working on BalikaVadhu (2012), in which he tried the part of District Collector Shivraj Shekhar. Shukla portrayed the character throughout the space of three years and won several accolades. A few whiles later, in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014), he was reputed to a costar, once again receiving acclaim. Born and reared up in Mumbai, Shukla began as a model by taking a position as a leader in the Manhunt and Mega model Gladrags contests and then starred in Bajaj and ICICI Banking television commercial campaigns. Shortly thereafter, he premiered on Babul Ka Aangann Chootey Na, followed by a range of dramatic TV shows such as CID and Aahat, which include criminal dramas. In 2016 Khatron Ke Khiladi won Fear Factor as well. Shukla has also been a popular television host with such series as Savdhaan India and the Got Talent 6 of India. His death caused a shock to the television and film industries.

Police authorities in Mumbai claimed that at around 9 a.m. before death, Shukla complained about cardiac pressure in his home in Oshivara, Mumbai.  At that time, his sister, his mother, and brother-in-law were in the house. A physician who came to the house found that he was pulseless. “The family went to Dr. RN Cooper hospital and requested an ambulance. They reached about 9.45 am and before admission he had been proclaimed dead.” The Forensic department leader, Dr. R Sukhdev, verified that on Thursday morning, Shukla was brought dead. The afternoon postmortem exam was performed. No external damage on his body was detected before the autopsy by physicians and police. The Dean of Dr. RN Cooper Hospital, Dr. Sailesh Mohite, refused to comment on the autopsy findings.

Many Celebertities Condolences

“Siddharth, gone too soon. You’ll be missed…” said Actor Salman Khan, who gave him the trophy of Bigg Boss. Kapil Sharma TV comedy host tweeted, “Oh god, it is truly shocking, my condolences to the family, and prayers for the the departed soul” Several TV and film fraternity members, like Rajkummar Rao, came to Mumbai to pay their final honors in Shukla Residence. On Friday his last rites will be conducted.

Shehnaaz Gill on Sidharth Shukla death

Sources close to the actor and individuals who went to his house and told Sidharth Shukla’s family that Shehnaaz is in a condition of shock and cannot cope with his loss today. Source further stated Shehnaaz was deeply impacted by the untimely death of the Balika Vadhu actor. Shehnaaz was very near to Sidharth, and she frequently publicly demonstrated her affection for him. Her compassion and caring for him never shied away. She said she was even in love with him openly. Fans liked their duo much after BB 13, and invented their moniker with affection, Sidnaaz. In two recent programs, Back-to-Back Bigg Boss OTT and Dances Deewane 3, the reported couple had featured.

Sidharth Shukla breathed his last in Shehnaaz Gill’s arms

Sidharth was still complaining of discomfort, and Shehnaaz and his mother begged him to relax. Sidharth was unable to sleep, on the other hand; thus Shehnaaz was requested to remain with him and pat on his back. Sidharth lay on the lap of Shehnhaaz at 1:00 a.m., and the latter walked away gently. She slept, too, and when she woke up at 7am, she found Sidharth sleeping in the same position without moving, and he didn’t stir when she tried to wake him up. From the 12th story to the fifth level, where his family resided, Shehnaaz was terrified and hurried. She notified Sidharth’s sister and phoned their doctor of the family, who told Sidharth that he hadn’t been there anymore.

Ye ‘Dil’ hai Muskil

Why are young people suffering from heart attacks? The death of Siddharth Shukla, 40 years old, has stunned everyone. Initial stories indicating that a heart attack is the reason for Thursday’s death were killed, along with the big boss winner Season-13. In recent times, heart disease has been a worry for health professionals among young Indian people. The question is why in very young age groups in India there has been an increase in cardiac attack.

Concluding Remarks

The greatest way I can escape the trap of thinking that you have anything to lose is to remember that you will die. No excuse to not follow your heart. Nobody wants to die. Nobody wants to die. Such people don’t even want to die to go to paradise to get there. And yet death is our common destination. Nobody has ever avoided it and this is why death is perhaps the finest invention of existence. Life is the agent of transformation. The old one is clearing way for the new one.

Death is, however tragic, probably God’s most beautiful creation. Death is merely another trip; birth and life will never take place without death. It’s unavoidable to lose somebody. Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, illustrates this wonders: Death is transitory and the meaning of life and death. Death is temporary. Death is a normal part of life, we have to realize. Death gives life its full significance. Let life be like summer flowers, let life be lovely and death be like fall leaves. But would it not be much easier to face our own mortality, rather than being unhappy, knowing that our life has been fully and without regret? Even if we don’t want to go to die, it’s just as unavoidable for the sun at night. In conclusion, when your time comes, you don’t have to die happy but you need to die satisfied, since from start to finish you have lived your life.

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New Social Compact

4.1 billion lack social safety net

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More than four billion people live without any welfare protection today to cushion them from crisis, the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) said on Wednesday, while highlighting how the COVID-19 crisis has pushed up government spending by some 30 per cent.

Leading the call for countries to extend social safety nets far more widely than they do now, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder insisted that such a move would help future-proof workers and businesses in the face of new challenges.

“This is a pivotal moment to harness the pandemic response to build a new generation of rights-based social protection systems,” said Mr. Ryder.

“These can cushion people from future crises and give workers and businesses the security to tackle the multiple transitions ahead with confidence and with hope. We must recognize that effective and comprehensive social protection is not just essential for social justice and decent work but for creating a sustainable and resilient future too.”

In a new report the UN body acknowledged that the COVID-19 crisis had led to greater social protections worldwide, albeit mainly in wealthy countries.

It noted that only 47 per cent of the global population are covered by at least one social protection benefit, while only one in four children has access to national welfare safety nets.

Newborns’ needs unmet

Further research indicated that only 45 per cent of women with newborns worldwide receive a cash benefit, while only one in three people with severe disabilities receive a disability benefit.

Coverage of unemployment benefits is even lower, ILO said, with only 18.6 per cent of jobless workers effectively covered globally.

On retirement welfare, the UN body found that although nearly eight in 10 people receive some form of pension, major disparities remain across regions, between rural and urban areas and women and men.

Regional imbalances

The ILO report underscores the significant regional inequalities in social protection.

Europe and Central Asia have the highest rates of coverage, with 84 per cent of people having access to at least one benefit.

Countries in the Americas are also above the global average (64.3 per cent), in stark contrast to welfare roll-out in Asia and the Pacific (44 per cent), the Arab States (40 per cent) and Africa (17.4 per cent).

Highlighting differences in government spending on social protection, ILO said that high-income countries spend 16.4 per cent of national turnover (above the 13 per cent global average, excluding health), while low-income countries budget just 1.1 per cent.

Billions more needed

The UN body noted that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have had to increase spending massively to ensure minimum social protection for all, by around 30 per cent.

And it maintained that to guarantee basic social protection coverage, low-income countries would need to invest an additional $77.9 billion per year, lower-middle-income countries an additional $362.9 billion and upper-middle-income countries a further $750.8 billion annually. That’s equivalent to 15.9 per cent, 5.1 per cent and 3.1 per cent of their GDP, respectively.

“There is an enormous push for countries to move to fiscal consolidation, after the massive public expenditure of their crisis response measures, but it would be seriously damaging to cut back on social protection; investment is required here and now,” said Shahra Razavi, Director, ILO Social Protection Department.

Underscoring the multiple benefits of social welfare protection, Ms. Razavi insisted that it could promoted “better health and education, greater equality, more sustainable economic systems, better managed migration and the observance of core rights…The benefits of success will reach beyond national borders to benefit us all”.

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Hell for Women?

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35-years-old woman and her daughter were raped by rickshaw driver and his accomplice in Lahore; On independence day of Pakistan, a TikToker was sexually harassed in Lahore; woman on rickshaw was harassed publically in Lahore and people were cheering; Noor Mukadam, daughter of a Diplomat, was brutally bumped off in Islamabad; a female school teacher was raped by owner of the school; a minor girl was raped by principal of seminary; a woman was gang raped by robbers in front of her family in Sheikhupura; a man with his three friends gang raped his fiancée and snatched jewelry; 16-years-old girl was raped by her stepfather in Lahore; mother of four children was raped in Bhagatpura; a 10-years-old was raped in Manwan; 17-years-old girl was raped after being promised a job; a minor girl was raped and sent to cemetery in Korangi; a woman was abducted and gang raped; an elderly woman was tortured, dragged and attempted to rape. Few cases have been quoted here. Sorrowfully, numerous other cases are remaining to be mentioned here. Unfortunately, a tiny figure of cases have been reported, still beaucoup cases are unreported.

Given obnoxious incidents give women sense of insecurity and uncertainty. Wretchedly, women in our society are deemed as prey and an open invitation by mad dogs (rapists) which they cannot evade and leave no stone unturned to assault them. The exponential rise in gender-based violence has proselytized our society into a hell for women, where they are considered as inferior segment of the society. This abysmal picture of our society adversely impacts our international image.

 The study conducted by Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, despite improving in women’s perception of community safety, still ranks Pakistan fourth among the worst countries for women to live in.

In accordance with the official data- collected from law enforcement agencies and human rights commission of Pakistan- at least 11 rape cases are reported regularly in Pakistan. More, the last six years data unearthed an icky tally of 22,000 cases registered to police in Pakistan. Dolefully, the conviction rate stood at 0.3% of total figure. 

Research conducted by Geo News revealed that only 41 per cent of cases have been reported to the Police. A police official estimated the actual number could be as high as 60,000 in last five years.

Furthermore, the Cyber Wing of the FIA in Lahore told that they have received 6,168 sexual harassment complaints out of total 14,108 in less than eight months. It further explained that mostly the complaints were lodged by University and College students relating to blackmailing by peers through the use of doctored videos and photographs.

Regarding violence against women, Punjab made up to 73 per cent of total cases, Ministry of Human Rights Toll-free helpline data showed. Besides, recent data by Punjab police divulged 1,890 rape cases and 88 gang-rape cases have been registered just in first six months of this year.

The reasons behind alarming rise in rape cases, which are mostly opined and observed personally, are rivalries, perpetrators remain scot-free, and incompetency of police.

In rivalries, various women have been raped because perpetrators think that it is better mean to smirch antagonist and avenge. As of the June of this year, when a boy tied love knot with daughter of an influential person, in avenge his mother 50-years-old was kidnapped, tortured, dragged, burned half-naked body with cigarette butts and attempted to rape by that influential people in Mazaffargarh. Exclusively, in village sides, women are raped in compensation, if victim’s father, brother or guardian has raped any girl.

Besides, since 2015, more than 22,000 cases of harassment have been registered to police, more than 4000 cases are still pending in the courts and only 18 per cent cases have managed to reach prosecution. Backlog of cases, takes too much time to provide justice to women and deter others to execute same. Thereby, executors remain unpunished and rape another woman with impunity. In some cases, rapists are granted pre-arrest bails. Afterwards, they threaten victim and her family to withdraw case; which fingers out the competency and justice of honorable courts and provides free space to those rapists to continue harassing women.

Apart from this, various cases are not reported due to family or social pressure, because they have to undergo another victimization. Karachi-based organization, War Against Rape (WAR), exposed that women who report the crime are coerced to visit male-dominated police stations and asked unnecessary questions that is why people remain silent and do not register complaints to shun answering gratuitous questions, which creates obstacle in the way of justice by sparing space to rapists.

Apart, victim blaming also desists victim to register complaint. Victim’s character is questioned, she is blamed for the rape and some misogynists and advocates of patriarchal society put allegations on victim giving illogical reasons. In consequence, victim find it easy to be silent rather than being pilloried countrywide and does not register her complaint, which indirectly paves the way for rapists to feel free from being brought to book and harass women whenever and wherever they want.

To counter this evil, Punjab Police has launched a safety App that will enable women to contact police through a message and it will enable Police to trace location of complainants through smart phones. Senior Police official assured that App will be launched in all districts of Punjab soon and a special squad will be formed soon in this regard. This initiative is praiseworthy and can be fruitful, if cooperated. All women should download this App so that in any emergency they can contact Police easily.

Additionally, separate courts for rape cases should be operational as soon as possible in order to evade years of pending cases. More medico-legal officers should be appointed to speed up medical process. Police should enforce all anti-harassment, anti-rape and anti-crimes against women laws and all women should be acquainted to these laws so that they can report crimes easily and immediately.

To sum up, society will remain hell for women, until our society is patriarchal and culprits remain scot-free. No society can be stable and prosperous, if women of that society are not secure and honored by every individual. If mentioned laws are implemented effectively, women of our society can live respectfully and society can be a heaven for them.

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