Photo: Maya Marissa Malek is ED, Global Shariah Advisory, and CEO of Amanie Advisors Global Office.

Islamic Finance

Q&A with Amanie's Maya Marissa Malek: ‘When it comes to Islamic finance, women are clearly and woefully under-represented’

This Q&A is with Maya Marissa Malek, Executive Director, Global Shariah Advisory, and CEO of Amanie Advisors Global Office. It is part of Salaam Gateway’s International Women's Day 2020 series that is co-designed and curated by Nyra Mahmood, MD of UK-based Simply Sharia Human Capital (SSHC LTD), the publishers of the 2016 report "Women in Islamic Finance & Islamic Economy”.

Salaam Gateway: Shariah scholars in the Islamic finance industry are one of the key gatekeepers that have a direct impact on the contracts, practices, transactions and deals in the $2 trillion+ industry. Is it accurate to say that an overwhelming minority of Shariah scholars that sit on Shariah Supervisory Boards either at company, national or industry infrastructure body level (e.g. AAOIFI) in the Islamic finance industry are women? Based on your experience and observation, or any available supporting data, what percentage of these scholars are women?

Maya Marissa Malek: Shariah scholars are not just gatekeepers but also the backbone of the Islamic finance industry. As Islamic finance journeys for a greater good and evolves into a more sophisticated industry, it is imperative that the spirit and the essence of Shariah are well guarded and are not compromised along the way. One major role of the Shariah scholars as experts in Shariah knowledge, is to ensure this remains intact throughout, more so as Islamic finance does not exist in an ideal ecosystem, at the moment.

The scholars also have a direct impact on the development of and innovation in the industry, identifying and filling up gaps, structuring products that are not only Shariah-compliant but also commercially viable and make a sound investment case, ensuring financial transactions and investment activities are in line with the objectives of Shariah (Maqasid al Shariah) etc. With this heavy responsibility, it should be all (able) hands on deck.

The ICD-Refinitiv Islamic Finance Development Report 2019 says there were 1,166 Shariah scholars in 2018. This is up slightly from 952 in 2014 as reported by ISRA and Thomson Reuters in the Islamic Commercial Law Report 2016. In 2018, 659 out of 1,166 scholars were based in just five countries: Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sudan, and Bahrain, according to the IFDI 2019 report. This is 65% of all Shariah scholars practising in Islamic finance, in just 5 countries.

As of now, with the increase in the number of Islamic financial institutions including Islamic windows, digital banks, Islamic asset management companies, and also with the introduction of the new AAOIFI Governance Standards requiring Shariah oversight on Sukuk issuances, there is a serious lack of members in the Shariah fraternity globally.

There is also a lack of Shariah experts with the requisite knowledge and understanding of both Shariah and other financial and investment aspects.

To add to this predicament, in my observation and having worked in the industry almost 15 years, the number of women scholars that sit on Shariah Supervisory Board globally is woefully low, and only visible in very few countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

Part of the problem is a lack of accurate data and official figures on the number of female Shariah scholars from Islamic finance institutions, especially in the Middle East. The AAOIFI Secretary-General, Mohamad Nedal Alchaar said in 2011 that there were no female shariah scholars in the Middle East. I have seen little evidence to say that has changed – again due to the lack of official data from the very institutions that employ and utilize scholars.

2.     How have the numbers stacked up over the last decade. i.e. has the number of women Shariah scholars in Islamic finance visibly increased in the last ten years?

Shariah scholarship is unique in the sense that it is imperative for the Shariah fraternity to be able to grasp with reasonably good command, the intricacies of all aspects of business i.e. risk, legal, commercial, operations, finance etc in order to weave the relevant Shariah principles into the DNA of a particular Islamic product/transaction resulting in a holistic, synergistic and workable solutions from many perspectives.

Ideally, Shariah should work in various eco-systems and requirements. The Shariah fraternity will be able to contribute significantly by having sufficient knowledge and experience to develop best-fit solutions within an eco-system which may not be ideal or conducive to Islamic finance.

Based on this premise, overall, I will say that the number of members of the Shariah fraternity able to contribute towards the aforementioned has increased, but having said that, the increase is not proportionate to the growth of the industry and the increasing number of players participating in one way or another in Islamic finance. We have not seen many who can provide the same level of knowledge and experience as the renowned and more senior members of the Shariah fraternity we have currently. There is still a long way to go.

In terms of women within the Shariah fraternity, on one hand, I would say yes, the number has increased in the last 10 years, especially as I have mentioned in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, which is a good sign and hopefully this will steadily rise.

On the other hand, the increase in numbers if looked at from an industry perspective is still too low, even negligible, and still only visible in the same jurisdictions. The fact remains that appointment of women Shariah scholars has not caught on in jurisdictions where Islamic finance exists, according to the publicly-available information and industry observations.

3.     Is there a need for more female scholars in the industry? Put it another way, is it important for women to be a part of the Shariah space?

Despite the positive outlook for the industry as a whole, the one challenge that has always been consistent and plaguing the industry is scarcity of talent. Even more so in Shariah advisory. And here I’m referring to a combined talent pool of both genders.

We need the right talent to fill up this cavity within Shariah Advisory to be in line with the projected growth of Islamic finance. What I mean by the right talent, are individuals who not only possess or have knowledge of the theoretical and practical aspects of Shariah and Islamic finance, but also people who have the right mindset, people who have the builder and the nurturer mindset; to actually develop, push and innovate the industry further.

Otherwise, the Islamic finance industry will not have a sustainable growth and can be stagnant if we keep on replicating the same structures, the same products without further innovation.

Although the growth trajectory of Islamic finance is high – forecast to grow 5.5% [CAGR] to $3.5 trillion by 2024, the size of the Islamic finance industry is still small, estimated at $2.5 trillion. There is a lot more to be done and mobilising both men and women in this space is critical.  

4.     There is meritocracy and there is affirmative action. Along the spectrum, there are issues of representation, diversity and inclusion. We’ve also heard over the years how any Shariah scholar always weighs decisions to benefit the best outcomes for humanity. What does it mean for a global industry when one of its key decision-making levels is overwhelmingly under-represented by women? For example, are issues affecting women not given enough consideration? (As something to look to, here’s a news story about “What happens when women lawmakers are the majority?” in a state in the USA.)

Islamic finance and its principles are naturally diverse and inclusive in nature. Islamic finance is meant for everyone regardless of faith, gender, social standing etc. The do’s and don’ts in Islamic finance are made clear in Shariah standards, contracts and principles. So, in a way, from the perspective of interpreting and applying the primary sources of law in Shariah, the decisions and rulings made by Shariah scholars, are already be diverse and inclusive in nature.

What would be a value add with more women on the board is that, I believe women tend to bring a different way of thinking and looking at things, which may add depth and breadth to the whole discussion and ijtihad process.

Islamic finance needs members of the Shariah fraternity who have a 360° of perspective, as Shariah itself is all encompassing and should be present in all aspects of business. It is not just about structuring a product. It should never be just that. A scholar/advisor has a role to complete the robustness of existing Islamic financial and investment offerings.

What are the areas in existing offerings that can be tightened or refined further? How can we, for instance, make Islamic finance more ‘authentic’ – in order to answer critics that believe it is the same as conventional finance.

To add to that, Islamic finance leaders have a duty to keep on expanding the boundaries of the industry. Untapped opportunities, unrepresented business segments, gaps between theories and practices, bridging principles and real market practices, must be dealt with.

Unfortunately, we still need more scholars/advisors have the expertise, knowledge and credibility, which leaves a huge capacity problem for this rapidly growing industry.

My observation of Shariah advisory practice over the years confirms that as an entity in the wider Islamic finance space, there is no visible career path to the top rungs in Islamic financial institutions. It is imperative that doors are open to talent – both women and men, with Shariah backgrounds to experience, re-learn and re-purpose Shariah within the context of the different aspects of the finance industry.

Over the past few years, Islamic finance has increased its focus on ESG and SDG-linked transactions. We have seen the Khazanah Malaysia’s Sukuk Ihsan – investing in trust schools, Emirates Red Crescent launched Sukuk Al Khair – financing various humanitarian projects, the Islamic Development Bank and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent collaborated on the WASH Fund – targeting cholera-impacted countries, UNHCR launched its Zakat Fund – to help refugees and displaced persons in war-torn countries etc.

These are very encouraging developments, more so as the spirit of SDG is very much in line with the objectives of Shariah. Having said that, the Islamic finance industry is still lagging behind the conventional industry in this space, in terms of number of issuances and investment interest from Islamic finance players, although many recipients of humanitarian funding is in Muslim-majority countries and most affected are women and children.

The Shariah board of potential investors, and especially women Shariah scholars, can play a more active role in pushing for more innovation in this space, such as best-fit solutions targeting women and children, as well as find ways to blend typical financing structures with other Islamic charitable instruments such zakat, waqf and sadaqah, in order for maximum positive impact to be achieved in a more efficient and transparent manner. There are many privately-operated charitable organizations, but ones which give tactile focus on women and their dependents are few, and these need constant funding. 

5.     Malaysia and Indonesia are countries which have embraced female Shariah scholars in Islamic finance, boasting more women in these positions than anywhere else. But we are yet to see that same level of visibility in other regions such as the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and North America. What are the barriers faced by women in the Islamic finance industry in these other regions?

In terms of barriers, in some countries, I would say, the lack of women in Shariah advisory is due to the same reasons as lack of women in other professions. In others, the challenge is the lack of women Shariah scholars themselves – even though opportunities may exist, there is a lack of suitable candidates.

The UAE and KSA for instance, provide ample opportunities for women to take on leadership and executive roles, even ministerial roles, demonstrating the inclusive policy taken by the institutions and authorities in these countries. Unfortunately, in the Islamic finance space, there is a lack of women Shariah scholars from these countries. The Higher Shariah Authority at the Central Bank of UAE had recently issued an exposure draft setting out eligibility criteria for members of Shariah Supervisory Boards in Islamic financial institutions, which is a practice adopted by jurisdictions with a centralized Shariah committee. The criteria seek to ensure a minimum level of qualification required for a Shariah scholar to be allowed as a member of Shariah Supervisory Boards in Islamic financial institutions licensed by the CBUAE. With a more transparent guideline as to eligibility, I hope to see more women plan their educational background and experience to fill up this cavity.

At this initial stage, there are 2 options – one is to enhance the knowledge of women with Shariah background by exposing them to and facilitate their understanding in, the technical and financial aspects of the industry, and two, is to enhance the knowledge of women already well versed in the technical and financial aspects of the industry with sound Shariah knowledge.

6.     The Islamic finance industry has for a long time talked about the capacity constraint for Shariah scholars. Do you think creating pathways for women in this space could help address that need?

Yes, definitely. A more balanced gender footing to be entrusted to women with top positions and involvement in Islamic Finance and in Shariah advisory boards, can only result in more benefits.

With an equal playing field, the Islamic finance industry will be tapping into a bigger talent pool of academically-qualified women professionals thus elevating the industry to greater heights.

I believe that this can be done through a better awareness system that recognises diversity and celebrates the strengths of each member of the society. For Shariah advisory in particular, it is imperative that people in the circle take it upon themselves to train new talents in the practical sense. Having paper qualifications, although impressive, is not sufficient to make a person an effective member  of the fraternity. There are many aspects to juggle when giving advice including who the audience is, to being able to identify the sweet spots and the art of competently explaining things play a big role in convincing a client, especially a newcomer to Islamic finance. This comes from experience and from sharing of this experience. Although this is easier said than done, there is no way around it.

I am positive that in the near future and with concerted efforts from all quarters, better understanding and acceptance of Islamic finance and Shariah-compliant products and services can be achieved and be applied to a wider audience and broad-ranging fields. For this to happen, effective mobilization of talent – from both genders, is key.

Talking about all the aspirations of Islamic finance, it goes without saying that it is essential that the industry has at its disposal, a global talent pool to tap into. We need talent that can provide accurate and contextual interpretation of Shariah principles. Not to mention, we need more people with the uncanny ability to look beyond what is currently visible into other untapped potential for Islamic finance. And more importantly, we need Islamic finance leaders that can nurture, build and sustain the industry.

We must remember that Islamic finance is still a fairly new vocation, we are only just building up and strengthening the foundation and infrastructure. It is also a specialized space, where individuals with adequate knowledge and relevant experience is still scarce. All the more reason to optimize what is available in terms of talent. Mobilizing men and women, through an inclusive culture and policies is key.

I’m sad to say that although there are many women leaders in different industries, when it comes to Islamic finance, women are clearly and woefully under-represented.

7. What is currently in place at the institutional levels to support the growth of young Shariah scholars, women or not, to take over from the pioneers? Could you give us three examples?

We see more efforts from many international institutions regarding inclusion and diversity. To develop and empower the female leaders of tomorrow, CEOs and senior leaders strive to integrate gender diversity as a core part of the organization’s strategic objective and ensure organization-wide communication and engagement. Retention, advancement and leadership-building are the key areas on which organizations should focus. Applying best practices in retaining talent, ensuring fairness and equal opportunities, removing any conscious or unconscious bias, and promoting role models are the key tools.

What I would like to see in the Shariah fraternity in particular, is that it is necessary that people in the circle take it upon themselves to train new talent in the practical sense. In short, we need a structured mentorship to be put in place at every Islamic financial institution, with a specific number of women mentees. This is not yet in place.

I would also like to see express requirements for a Shariah Supervisory Board to have at least one or two women representation. With an express requirement, there is a clear career opportunity to motivate women to pursue Shariah scholarship and be part of the Shariah fraternity in the Islamic finance industry. Without this and knowing that Shariah scholarship is perceived to be the domain of men, this area of vocation will be one that will not grow in terms of talented women scholars.

8. Do you believe Muslim women are ready to step up to become Shariah scholars and hence decision-makers to represent their own concerns and interests, or are there among our numbers who feel it is not their place?

During the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), there were great women of Islam who were honoured by the Prophet (pbuh). Their achievements and influence showed that women were found in every sphere of that glorious period – in politics, in war, education, in courts of Islamic jurisprudence, in the interpretation of Shariah, in commerce, agriculture, medicine and nursing.

The book ‘Great Women of Islam’, set out the many women Companions in Islam that exemplified the various roles that women played in the days of the Prophet (pbuh). For instance, in the Battle of Uhud, at one critical point, the woman Companion, Umm ‘Ammarah (ra) shielded the Prophet (pbuh) with her body and warded off the enemy with her sword as well as bows and arrows. She fought valiantly and was severely wounded. In the Battle of Ahzab, the woman Companion, Safiyyah (ra) displayed a brilliant military strategy in handling the enemy’s attack.

Leading the prayers or the calling of Adhan is an important aspect of religious life. Although women cannot lead men in prayer, they can do so with assemblies of women. Many women contemporaries of the Prophet (pbuh) performed this task as well, such as the Prophet’s wife ‘Aishah, Umm Sulaim, Umm Waraqah and many others (may Allah be pleased with them). The second Caliph, ‘Umar al Khattab (ra) valued Shifa’ binti Abdullah for her political intelligence and insight and consulted her often, even gave her the responsibility of running the affairs of state related to trade and commerce.

There are various subjects that make up the knowledge of Islam and its tenets, which without a thorough understanding of the same, will affect a thorough knowledge of the same. The elocution and enunciation of the Qur’an, interpretation and commentary, Shariah, Fiqh, study of Hadith, all are important aspects of Islamic studies. Many of the women Companions were experts in these areas. The aforementioned book described that in the sensitive sphere of interpretation of Hadith, ‘Aishah and Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with them) were exceptional masters of interpretation and commentary. ‘Aishah (ra) was associated with more than 2000 ahadith, so much so that much of the body of Hadith which forms one of the primary sources of Shariah law contains narration from her. Also in Islamic jurisprudence, ‘Aishah’s (ra) verdicts could fill several volumes. The same could be said of Umm Salmah’s (ra) recorded verdicts. ‘Aishah (ra) was also well versed in law of inheritance. She was a great Shariah scholar.

The women Companions also practised the practical or survival skills in agriculture, business, trade and commerce. There was no sphere of activity – social or cultural – that was not influenced and assisted by the presence of great women during that time.

This should not be any different now. Women in the MENA region and in Muslim countries in Asia, Africa and elsewhere are highly educated and skilled than ever before, but they lose out in terms of work. Women are ready and have the requisite skills to play a role as Shariah scholars and not only represent women but society as a whole.

9. You work for one of the most reputable Shariah advisory firms globally and are the only female CEO of a Shariah Advisory firm in the Middle East, what attracted you to this space and what advice would you give to young scholars – men and women – wanting to pursue a career in Shariah? 

The realm of Islamic finance and Shariah advisory are very close to my heart. The intricacies and richness of Shariah principles and the challenge of finding solutions towards achieving the objectives of Shariah is never dull. There are new things to learn, unlearn and relearn every day. I am fortunate to be able to experience this in my line of work and to have the platform to innovate and share new ideas in this space.

I remain positive that more women will be given more prominent roles in contributing towards the growth of this industry or any other industry for that matter.

One of my aims is to empower more and more women to enter this line of work and demonstrate to them that we can do it and do it well, if not better. I believe that this can be done through a better awareness system that recognizes diversity and celebrates the strengths of each member of the society.

For Shariah advisory, in particular, it is crucial that people in the center take it upon themselves to train new talent in the practical sense. I am positive that in the near future and with concerted efforts from all quarters, better understanding and acceptance of Islamic finance and Shariah-compliant products and services can be achieved and be applied to a wider audience and broad-ranging fields.

For untapped women leaders in Islamic finance, there is no easy way to succeed. In order to make an impact in the industry especially one that is male-dominated such as Islamic finance, we need to have a bit of attitude.

Women should not have to bow down to mainstream perception and expectation.

We need to be creative in managing and balancing various responsibilities, be ready to accept challenges and take everything in our stride in a positive manner – all these, without compromising on the unique attributes that we have as women, including our quiet strength.

When the industry has more exposure to seeing women leaders in Islamic finance, it will not be an exception any longer, but the norm. It is also important for women to support each other in each of our endeavours. This is something I always aspire to do.

*UPDATE: Amendments were made throughout Maya's responses to change "Shariah scholars" to "Shariah fraternity" or "members of the Shariah fraternity" to better reflect the wider Shariah fraternity. 

Continue reading Salaam Gateway’s International Women's Day 2020 series.

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