Though women are not excluded from Islamic finance, the fact remains that women are not a big enough part of the Islamic finance industry.
“They have not been undervalued, but underrepresented,” Maya Marissa Malek, CEO, Amanie Advisors, told Islamic Business & Finance.
According to Malek, there are two reasons that women have traditionally not played a larger role in the Islamic finance industry. “First, Shari’ah advisory services and Shar’iah scholarship has traditionally been in the realm of men. It’s more from the traditional or olden days. Most people associate Shari’ah with the classic Imams or clerics in mosques. But when you get into Islamic commercial law, it’s open for everyone. It doesn’t matter if your Muslim or non-Muslim, man or woman, you can be part of Islamic commercial law. In some countries, it’s more of the lack of participation of Muslim women. They feel that this industry is not for them. Because of this, there have not always been that many potential opportunities for women to be part of the industry,” said Malek.
Shari’ah advisory in particular, which Malek is involved in personally, has even fewer women. “You can count with one hand how many women Shari’ah advisors there are in the industry. But for middle management and human resources in Islamic banks, you can find women, but when you go up the corporate ladder, you do not see as many women in Islamic institutions,” says Malek.
How do we change this in the industry? Since there are more women studying Islamic finance, Shari’ah advisory is a great route for them to take. Shari’ah advisory’s role in Islamic institutions as well, however, must change.
“We need to have an inclusive policy. We need to open doors. Shari’ah advisory is the heart of Islamic finance. Everything that is done in Islamic finance has to comply with Shari’ah principles. As a vocation, however, it’s still new. It’s not like becoming a lawyer or an accountant, it’s new and niche. As it is new, there is a gap between theory and practise. If you come from a Shari’ah background in school, and what you face in the real market, can be very different. Because of this, banks and financial institutions have clustered people from Shari’ah backgrounds into Shari’ah departments.
“One solution is to bring all Shari’ah experts into all different business aspects within a financial institutions, as all these departments need Shari’ah knowledge. This would also let Shari’ah experts to understand more about how the entire business operates on the ground. The other team members will also understand more what Shari’ah is looking for, and how to integrate it into their business discipline. There is no clear career path as it stands for a Shari’ah advisor to become a CEO of an Islamic bank. This could allow that,” said Malek.
Muhammed Ikram Thowfeek, Founder and Managing Director, MIT Global agrees that women must play a greater role in the industry.
“We want to make sure women also have a role to play, apart from being a mother at home, they can nurture other women to take leadership roles. When these ladies come forward and share their thoughts, other women become inspired and think ‘if this person can do it, why not me?’ and normally people look for a role model or inspiration and they build from there,” Thowfeek told IB&F.
The underrepresentation of women, according to Thowfeek, is related to the lack of awareness of what Islamic finance is broadly.
“Now, if you look at Malaysia there are so many ladies who have taken up leadership positions in many of the banks. So it is coming up and what is needed is to create a platform that is non-competing to bring like-minded people together for future collaboration or partnerships with the objective to sharing their knowledge to ensure the Islamic financing industry can be uplifted from all corners. People think Islamic finance is confined to the Muslim community, which is a misunderstanding. Islamic finance is for all mankind, irrespective of your colour, religion, ethnic group you belong to. People suffered a lot after the financial crisis, their hard-earned money and life savings were lost, overnight. So they want a banking system of banking model that will protect their money which is transparent and ethical. But the message has to be brought to the general public that today the Islamic finance industry is largely untapped due to lack of awareness as to what Islamic finance is actually all about,” said Thowfeek.
Tapping young talent, however, is an issue that banks and financial institutions can start working harder on immediately.
“If you’re a fresh graduate, no matter what your discipline is, you need opportunity to show your capability, specifically for women in this industry. The banks need to have an inclusive policy for gender equality within the organisation. Women also need to know that there is potential. It’s worthy to wade into this industry and take the bull by the horns and go with it. It’s a mix of both,” said Malek.
The only solution to raising awareness and the representation of women, according to Malek, is to keep the conversation going on an individual level.
“Keep on talking about it. The more people that are aware of this, the more the mindset will change, and the more people will be receptive of women leaders. It’s the same with women in any industry—it takes a while for people to see that it’s not a competition, it’s something better for the business. Propogating and encouraging women’s empowerment in Islamic business is a good step,” says Malek.
“What we need to think of first and foremost, as women, is how we can contribute. Put gender on the backburner. Put ourselves in the forefront, and know that we can have good ideas, we can be committed, and push forth together with the men. In the Islamic industry, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, you play different roles. You serve the same industry. Every little bit counts. It’s a new industry, it’s just building up it’s foundation and infrastructure. It’s a wholistic thing. Every contribution for the betterment of the industry is good.”