The 2018 election in Pakistan was historic for more reasons than one. While it marked the third consecutive smooth transition of a civilian government in the country, the 2018 elections were also hailed for another thing: the increased participation of women.
In the recently concluded election, a record 171 women candidates contested the elections this year, according to figures quoted by Dawn.
However, this increase in contestants failed to translate into an increase in elected women representatives in the Pakistan National Assembly. This time only 8 women representatives managed to be part of the country's national assembly. That is one woman less than the 2013 election when 9 women were elected to the NA through direct elections.
The highest number of women were elected from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), while the two winning Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) women candidates also got elected. One woman candidate each won from Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N), Grand Democratic Alliance, and Balochistan Awami Party each.
But why did the increase in the number of women contesting elections not result in more women getting voted to office?
Numbers can be misleading
Special report: More women than ever are running for office in the 2018 election in Pakistan. That sounds impressive, but it isn’t. Only 2.6% of the total candidates are women. https://t.co/fshSktbiMz… pic.twitter.com/9bALWZtzFX
— Benazir Shah (@Benazir_Shah) July 15, 2018
Despite the increase in women contestants, the total women candidates constituted merely 2.6 percent of the total number of candidates.
The Nation reported that according to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), a total of 304 tickets were issued to women in by 48 parties in the provincial assembly elections of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Though it was hailed as a great improvement, the Elections Act (2017)’s mandate for contesting parties to give at least 5 percent tickets to women candidate may have had a larger role to play in this increase. According tot the ECP, PPP gave the most number of tickets to women. The party allocated 43 tickets to women candidates while its rivals PTI and PML-N allocated 42 and 37 tickets each.
However, many claimed that the increase in representation for women was the bare minimum and most parties stuck to the minimum lower limit mandated by law, only giving tickets to women in order to meet the new Election Act’s demands as well as ECP’s mandates. In fact, a total of 59 parties refused to give tickets to women despite the mandate.
Questions were also raised against the parties that gave tickets to women but ensured they were seats that these women could never win. The Guardian reported that the leaders of religious hard-lining parties such as Peshawar’s Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah hadn't even seen one of the women candidates they had fielded. On the other hands, Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Lahore with a female candidate reportedly had no hopes of winning. Other instances of lapses in equal promotion of female candidates were also evident in posters of Members National Party leaders with the face of the female candidate Mamoona Hamid, wiped out.
Memoona Hamid another MNA contender for a seat in the parliament missing from her poster too. Great representatives for women pic.twitter.com/2S9L3QatML — Reham Khan (@RehamKhan1) July 22, 2018
A woman candidate from PTI, Syeda Zahra Basit Bokhari, faced a similar fate when her face was replaced by her husband’s in posters. Her party allegedly defended the move by claiming that “Syed women do not publicise their pictures,” Geo TV reported.
More women voted
46,731,145 (almost 43 million) female voters were registered to vote in Pakistan this time. According to reports, 3.8 percent more women were eligible to vote in this election than the one in 2013. The increase in women voters may be due to another ECP mandate declaring that each constituency must have 10 percent voters in order to avoid nullification of the results.
Pakistani women from tribal, traditionally ultra-conservative areas such as Dir, Waziristan and Kohistan in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa voted for the first time.
Over 67,000 women from Upper Dir voted. Among constituencies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa/FATA and ICT, 22,594 women cast their vote for PK-10, PK-11 had total 21,372 women who voted and PK-12 had 23,777
Some of these areas such as Dir had previously witnessed a systematic denial of women from voting arenas. Even in central Pakistan villages such as Mohri Pur, some women exercised their right to vote despite resistance from conservative husbands and elders. Stories on social media tell the tale better than words.
Women in Bayzai sub-division of Mohmand Tribal District (ex-Fata), 5 kilometres from the Afghan border got out to vote for the first time. (My hometown as well) #GeneralElection2018 pic.twitter.com/uTgBr2xMQ3
— Iftikhar Firdous (@IftikharFirdous) July 25, 2018
There was also an increase in the number of voters in areas that had already seen women voting such as the Federally Administered Tribal areas (FATA) such as Mohmand and Kurram. The latter’s only female candidate was Ali Begum, who of course failed to win.
Female turnout in #NA46, #Kurram is really encouraging. Today they will make a history by electing their own female candidate. #VoteForAliBegum — Mrs Ali Begum (@Mrs_AliBegum) July 25, 2018
In a rare move, women proceed to vote in the tribal district of Mohmand, Pakistan 🇵🇰 pic.twitter.com/r1vqpLJKtO — Maan Imran Khan (@MaanImranKhan) July 25, 2018
But all was not rosy
According to National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) numbers published by Gulf News before the elections, almost 10 million adult women were likely to miss out on their right to vote. Add to that a large number of women who did not even have Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICS).
Pakistan's next govt has a lot of work to do on the economic program. Investors like me forget how personal elections are, and how empowering they can be. Here are women in rural areas lining up for hours in heat so their voices are heard. Respect. Thanks @omar_quraishi pic.twitter.com/vKHiahNWhJ
— Sameer Chishty (@sameerchishty) July 25, 2018
According to the latest estimates by Pakistan’s National Commission on the Status of Women, it will take women in Pakistan 18 years to fill the gender gap in voting. The increase in the number of voters may be indicative of a growing political identity among women.
But the fact that even lesser women were voted into power than previous elections may be construed as a failure on the ECP's part to ensure that 60 seats in the NA were indeed filled by women and is indicative of a deeper problem of patriarchy in Pakistan that continues to reject women as equal to men, especially in the political sphere.