Pakistan Elections 2018: Record Number of Women Candidates But Will They Win?

A total of 176 women candidates are in the run for general seats of the National Assembly in the 2018 elections, according to data compiled by Media for Transparency from Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) records.

The 2018 number is 21 candidates more than the number of females who contested the 2013 elections and three times higher than the number of women who ran for the 2002 polls.

If multiple candidacies are taken into account, as many as 182 women will be on the ballot on 25 July in 128 of the National Assembly’s 272 constituencies. These 128 constituencies include important political battles, such as NA-125 Lahore-IIINA-27 Peshawar-INA-243 Karachi East-II, and NA-265 Quetta-II.

But all of these women candidates are not actively campaigning for a place in the assembly, and many more face structural challenges that limit their chances of victory. Overall, experts believe the higher number of women candidates might do little in terms of increasing the meaningful political participation of women in Pakistan.

To begin with, the rise in number of women candidates might not be due to an earnest interest by political parties in women’s representation. Their hand might be forced by a federal law passed in October 2017.


The Elections Act 2017 made it mandatory for political parties to issue a minimum number of tickets to women to contest elections.

Section 206 of the Act states that a political party shall “ensure at least five per cent representation of women candidates” when it makes the selection of candidates on general seats for national and provincial assemblies.

The 2018 general elections are a “pilot run” for Section 206, says Kapil Dev, a programme coordinator at the Pakistan office of the German foundation, Heinrich Boll Stiftung (HBS).

Pakistan’s National Assembly, which forms the lower house of the national parliament, already has 60 seats reserved for women in addition to the 272 general seats for which direct elections are held. The reserved seats are allocated on the basis of party positions in the polls.

Mr Dev says the women who enter the assembly on reserved seats have performed well but are still discredited by male colleagues because the women do not directly represent constituents. Parties have also been accused of nepotism in handing out reserved seats. The demand for more direct representation of women has grown due to these concerns, he says.

Mr Dev heads the Gender Democracy programme at HBS, which recently launched a paper titled “Making Gender Quota Meaningful” about the 5% quota for awarding party tickets to women.

The paper suggests the quota may not “substantially” increase the number of women contesting on general seats because political parties already gave around 3% tickets to women in 2013.

According to the ECP, the three largest national political parties – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), and Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) – have all fielded more women candidates for general elections than the required minimum.

But the ECP calculated the 5% quota against the total number of tickets issued by a political party for national and provincial assemblies, allowing some leeway to the parties because of the greater number of provincial assembly seats and hence more chances to field women candidates.

A look at the more competitive National Assembly tickets alone shows that the three big parties needed to award at least 12 tickets to women.

The PPPP has fielded 19 women while the PML-N and PTI has given 13 and 14 tickets to women respectively. Except for the PPPP, the other parties stayed close to the minimum.

Other parties show a similar trend, based on ECP’s aggregated data.

Policy analyst Azeema Cheema seems to agree.

“Where political parties have been given quotas, they are still sticking to their attitude of awarding tickets to women very close to the (quota) percentage,” she says. “So no serious reform is happening within the parties.”

Ms Cheema, who works for a private consulting firm, says most political parties could have used this opportunity to give more tickets to women but they have not attempted to go beyond the quota to make genuine changes apparently.

The HBS report also recommends that political parties should give tickets to women in their strongholds where their candidates have more chances of winning the direct election.

“The primary purpose behind the imposition of 5% requirement was to bolster the number of women elected on general seats,” the paper states. “It may only be achieved if parties prioritise to give women tickets in their strongholds.”

An analysis of the 2018 data on women candidates for National Assembly general seats shows some political parties have done the exact opposite.


Not many of the 176 women candidates are running for elections in their party strongholds.

The PTI, for example, was the ruling party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province during the last five-year term. But it did not give a single National Assembly ticket to women in KP.

Five of PTI’s 14 women candidates are in Sindh, where the party is unlikely to win big. Two of the PTI’s Sindh women candidates are contesting elections in Larkana, the PPPP’s home district. One PTI candidate, Mussarat Shah, is up against PPPP’s Aftab Shaban Mirani, a three-time former Member National Assembly (MNA) who also served as Sindh Chief Minister in the ’90s.

Similarly, the PPPP awarded nine party tickets to women in Punjab, where the party failed to impress in the 2013 elections and is not considered among the major contenders for electoral victory at present.

Two of these nine women candidates are contesting elections from the Rawalpindi division, where the major electoral battles are between PML-N and PTI. Mehreen Anwar Raja in NA-57 is on the side-lines of a two-horse race between former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (PML-N) and Sadaqat Ali Abbasi (PTI). PPPP’s Sumera Gul, in NA-62, is similarly an outsider in the tough fight between PML-N’s Chaudhry Daniyal and PTI-backed Sheikh Rasheed.

In Sindh, where the PPPP traditionally wins most of its National Assembly seats, the party has only fielded five women candidates. Party co-chairman Asif Zardari’s sisters, Azra Fazal and Faryal Talpur, who won direct elections to the National Assembly in 2013, were ignored. Ms Talpur is instead running for a Sindh provincial assembly seat.

It is commendable that the PML-N gave a ticket to Hindu woman Neelam Walji in NA-220 Umerkot, but the party did not consider non-Muslim women in Punjab where it has ruled for 10 years and enjoys more support than Sindh.

Mr Dev says the parties seem to be unsure about the so-called electables among women candidates.

One major reason for this could be the way political parties are structured in Pakistan.

“In political party structures, women wings are not very well-connected to the decision-making circles within the party,” Ms Cheema says. “So the primary barrier to women’s political participation via the political structure has been the patriarchy within the political party where the decisions are made by powerful men.”

Some women are able to break through the traditional party hegemony, she says, but the political careers of a majority of women politicians are dependent on the opportunities provided to them by party leaderships.

Another factor is the lack of opportunities to women candidates to raise campaign finance.

“A lot of women are dependent for resources on the male members of the family,” Ms Cheema says.

She says if a male politician does not have family resources, he can use other networks to raise funds but this is very difficult for women.

Despite these issues, some women politicians are putting up a bid to return to the lower house of the national parliament through direct election.


The number of women candidates contesting for National Assembly general seats shot up to 161 in 2013 from 64 in 2008, according to ECP statistics. However, only six women eventually won a place in the assembly on Election Day – a paltry 4% of the total women candidates.

These six women were from two political parties (and two provinces) only: The PML-N’s Sumaira Malik (NA-69 Khushab), Ghulam Bibi (NA-88 Jhang), and Saira Afzal Tarrar (NA-102 Hafizabad); and the PPPP’s Azra Fazal (NA-213 Nawabshah), Faryal Talpur (NA-207 Larkana), and Fehmida Mirza (NA-225 Badin).

Ms Malik’s membership was de-notified early on, due to her fake academic degree. But the August 2013 by-polls brought three more women to the assembly (PPPP’s Shazia Marri and Shams-un Nisa from Sindh, and PML-N’s Shazia Mubashar from Punjab). Shezra Mansab Ali won the 2015 by-election on NA-137 Nankana Sahib after the death of her father, who had won the seat for PML-N in the general election.

The last woman to join the other nine parliamentarians through a by-poll was Kulsoom Nawaz in 2018 on the Lahore seat vacated due to the disqualification of her husband, the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But she never attended an assembly session due to ill health.

For the 25 July general election, seven of these women have put up re-election bids.

Saira Afzal Tarrar, who served as the federal health minister, is actively campaigning in Hafizabad. So are Shezra Mansab Ali, Shazia Marri, and Shams-un Nisa in their respective constituencies. All four are supported by the same political parties as the 2013 election.

Ghulam Bibi moved to the PTI and will be facing off against her old party in Jhang. Fehmida Mirza broke off with the PPPP and is now contesting elections as part of the Grand Democratic Alliance against her old party in Badin.

The seventh woman MNA re-elect, Ms Mubashar, has a slightly complicated story.

Her foray in national politics in 2013 was due to her husband, Rana Mubashar Iqbal. Mr Iqbal was a PML-N hopeful for the National Assembly seat vacated in Lahore by current PML-N chief Shahbaz Sharif. However, when Mr Iqbal’s nomination papers were rejected on account of a fake academic degree, he got his wife to contest the by-election. Ms Mubashar went on to win empathically – she received nearly 60% of the valid votes polled in the by-election.

Now, Mr Iqbal is eligible to contest elections again and is running on a PML-N ticket from NA-134 Lahore. Ms Mubashar is an independent candidate from the same constituency, most probably as a covering candidate for her husband and unlikely to retain her own place in the assembly.

Ms Mubashar is not the only independent candidate covering for a male family member. A look at the ECP records show there are many women like her among the 176 women candidates.


Pakistani law forbids persons convicted for at least two years in prison from contesting elections unless five years have passed since their release from jail, according to the ECP.

The PML-N faced a slew of conviction-related disqualifications in the build-up to the elections. Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the scion of the party’s political dynasty, was convicted and therefore disqualified in the first week of July. Her father Nawaz Sharif, the party’s leader-for-life, was already out of the running due to a Supreme Court order in July 2017.

Daniyal Aziz, a former federal minister and vocal PML-N defender, was found guilty of contempt of court. The conviction cost him his candidacy from Narowal. Mr Hanif Abbasi, the PML-N candidate from a key Rawalpindi constituency, was convicted in a drug scandal three days before the election.

It is no surprise then that many women running as independent candidates from Punjab are related to male PML-N candidates contesting elections from the same constituencies. Theoretically, these women are candidates in their own right. However, in practice, their nomination papers were filed as covering candidates for the PML-N men in case the men’s nominations got rejected in the scrutiny process or they were disqualified on other grounds.

“Somebody is going to say ‘oh, you are my daughter or sister and we will go on your behalf and talk to the voters’,” policy analyst Azeema Cheema says. “That reduces the women’s agency, it cuts her out a bit. Hence they are not able to establish the kind of influence a man does.”

The practice of women covering candidates is not limited to the PML-N or Punjab.

Media for Transparency was able to identify 19 women, out of the 65 independent women candidates, who are related to a party ticket-holding candidate from the same constituency.

Notable examples include the wife of former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in Rawalpindi division, the wife of PPPP candidate Javed Ali Shah Jeelani in Khairpur, and the wife of Mian Muhammad Rasheed, a former PML-N MNA and current PTI candidate from Narowal.

A majority of the women candidates, however, are honestly vying for a seat in the National Assembly.


In at least 39 National Assembly constituencies, more than one woman candidate is up for election. This might be because of a preference of the political parties to field women candidates against other women, although that is not a trend either.

NA-125 Lahore and NA-54 Islamabad have the most women on the ballot: five each.

Across the country, these women politicians are overcoming political and socio-cultural barriers to run their election campaigns for the National Assembly.

Awami National Party (ANP) candidate Irum Fatima in Haripur previously ran as an independent in 2013 and now vows to get more votes through the party platform. She is banking on the female voters to support her.

Ms Fatima and many other women candidates face uphill battles.

The PTI’s Zartaj Gul in Dera Ghazi Khan lost the 2013 election in her constituency but won the party ticket to contest again from the same constituency, where she is up against the Leghari tribe’s candidate for a second time.

The left-leaning Awami Workers Party’s Ismat Shahjahan, a seasoned political worker, is contesting in the federal capital against mainstream political party candidates, who have access to much more funds and better logistical support.

Former Sindh Assembly speaker Shehla Raza will have to pull off a victory against PTI chief Imran Khan if she is to reach the National Assembly.

The PPPP’s Nafisa Shah, previously an MNA on seats reserved for women and one of the brains behind the demand for a minimum percentage of general-seat tickets for women, is now campaigning for direct election from NA-208 Khairpur against the Grand Democratic Alliance’s Ghous Ali Shah.

But some women candidates are witnessing the scales tilt in their favour through hard work and good luck.

Election pundits are predicting a potential win for the PTI’s intrepid candidate Yasmin Rashid in Lahore where she lost previous elections but has emerged as a strong contender for the National Assembly seat through years of grassroots politics and the withdrawal of an expected rival.

Still, patriarchal influences keep cropping up in women’s election campaigns.


Khadeeja Amir is a PTI candidate from Bahawalnagar. When Media for Transparency contacted her for comment, she requested her husband to speak in her place.

“He is carrying out the election campaign,” Ms Amir said. She said she does not even participate in corner meetings. On polling day, her voters will be stamping her party’s election symbol and might not even remember the candidate’s name.

This is not surprising.

“Women are very rarely allowed to be in charge of their own campaigns,” says Ms Cheema.

She says women candidates who go to rural areas for campaigning are likely to experience obvious patronizing behaviour from men.

“Somebody is going to say ‘oh, you are my daughter or sister and we will go on your behalf and talk to the voters’,” Ms Cheema says. “That reduces the women’s agency, it cuts her out a bit. Hence they are not able to establish the kind of influence a man does.”

Pakistan’s electoral politics on votes based on kinship, in which women have to pander to the clan vote just like men. Family support has its benefits for women politicians, too.

Families can also help provide opportunities for campaign funding to women, Ms Cheema says.

“The reason why you see so many women candidates who have come to prominence in political parties through their families’ politics is because families and political dynasties can provide women with more opportunities,” she says.

Four women are contesting the National Assembly elections from multiple constituencies.

Ayesha Gulalai, who left the PTI to form her own political party after publicly accusing the PTI chief Imran Khan of sexual harassment, is contesting elections from four constituencies. Nasira Meo, an independent candidate, is running for the National Assembly from two Kasur constituencies. Syed Zahra Basit Bukhari is on a PTI ticket from the Muzaffargarh NA-184 constituency, but also contesting as an independent from neighbouring NA-185. The PML-N awarded Sobia Shahid tickets from two KP constituencies, NA-7 Lower Dir and NA-27 Peshawar.


This is a searchable list of all the women candidates contesting National Assembly elections on 25 July 2018 on general seats.

Whether or not the 5% quota for women candidates materialises into electoral success for women will become clear on polling day. But the record number of women candidates provides a moment to reflect on how the political representation of women can further be improved.

The ECP’s Director Elections Chaudhry Nadeem Qasim says the commission would like the political parties to go beyond the quota.

“We need gender balance in the assembly,” Mr Qasim says. “The right of franchise should be awarded to all genders.”

This year the ECP has more powers under the Elections Act 2017 to ensure that women voters turn up to cast their ballots. For the first time in Pakistan, the ECP will be disaggregating female votes polled in the 2018 elections. Ms. Cheema says the data could have a catalytic effect on women participation.

She says there is a need to increase civic engagement with women at the university-level so more opportunities can be developed to help women become leaders.

Networking with female university students might also help raise awareness about a little-known fact: Women parliamentarians have consistently outperformed their male counterparts in recent assembly sessions.

“Frankly, women do the business of parliament better, present more bills, draft more legislation, attend the most sessions,” Ms Cheema says. “Women actually do the work in such roles.”