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Women in Islamic finance.

Byline: Helen Twinam

Summary: As Western influence spreads across the Middle East, businesswomen in Islamic finance are making their mark in what is largely a male-dominated environment. Increased job prospects and visible role models will help to raise the profile of women in the MENASIA region

The first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, is considered to be one of the greatest women in Islamic history. A widely respected and successful businesswoman who inherited her father's business, Khadijah is known as the first female entrepreneur in Islam. Her title of al-Tahira ("the pure one") was earned through her purity, generosity and service to others.

Khadijah employed Muhammad as an agent to trade her merchandise to Syria and, impressed by his sense of responsibility and business skills, she proposed to him. She was also the first to declare faith in Islam.

Khadijah's example sets a standard for aspiring businesswomen across the Islamic world--her success in a male-dominated society provides inspiration for women to pursue their own careers. But how easy is it, in modern times, for a woman to gain acceptance from her male peers and become successful in an environment such as Islamic finance? And what does the future hold for women in the sector?

The Western view of a successful woman generally relates to an accomplished career and financial independence. But in Islam, although a Muslim woman can pursue a career, her primary role as wife and mother are considered more important. The status attached to the role of mother is equal to, or more than, that associated with the father as provider:

A man came to the Prophet and said:

"O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship?" The Prophet said: "Your mother." The man said: "Then who?" The Prophet said: "Then your mother." The man further asked: "Then who?" The Prophet said: "Then your mother." The man asked again: "Then who?" The Prophet said: "Then your father."

Bukhari and Muslim hadith

Although Western attitudes towards career women are actively promoted in most industries, women in the Middle East, North Africa and emerging Asia (MENASIA) regions can still be faced with chauvenistic attitudes and lower salaries.

In an industry based on Islamic laws, attitudes towards women in Islamic finance are more traditional and conservative. But attitudes towards businesswomen in the sector are becoming more liberal, as female role models prove they can balance both a family and career. Women are finding they are increasingly regarded as equals in the workplace, and steps are being taken across many regions to encourage female entrepreneurship.

The industry average of female employees in Islamic finance amounts to 25% of the workforce. Companies such as Sakana Holistic Housing Solutions, an Islamic mortgage provider based in Bahrain, promote women's profA[degrees]essional development in the sector. Women comprise 46% of Sakana's workforce, and the company offers equal opportunities based on merit and regardless of gender. R Lakshmanan, CEO of Sakana, says women are well qualified to take up professional positions within the financial services sector. "When Sakana began operations in 2006, our female workforce stood at an impressive 30%. But our policy of equal opportunities goes much further than the recruitment stage, as we actively encourage women to aim for senior positions in the company," he says.

Bahrain is considered one of the more liberal regions in the Middle East. But in conservative states, such as Saudi Arabia, senior positions for businesswomen are harder to achieve. Traditional ideals and cultural attitudes act as barriers for women who wish to further their careers, with more emphasis on their responsibilities as wives and mothers. Shariah law largely dictates attitudes towards women, with conservative regulations limiting their career options.

Dr Nahed Taher, former chief economist of National Commercial Bank--one of the largest banks in Saudi--had to leave the bank to progress her career and be appointed CEO of First Gulf Bank in Bahrain, a position that would not have been possible for her to achieve in Saudi Arabia.

But the state is working towards reform in women's education to provide the necessary skills for women to follow independent careers. Construction has recently begun on a new campus at the Princess Noura Bint Abdelrahman University for Girls--set for completion in 2010--which will provide courses for women including medicine, information technology and languages. The campus, based in Riyadh, is designed to become the world's largest centre of higher learning for women, with accommodation for 40,000 students.

Khaled Al-Anqari, the state's minister for education, said at the launch: "The King's presence here shows his generous support for women empowerment in Saudi Arabia and his keen desire to promote higher education."

Recent UNESCO figures show that the state has the lowest female unemployment in the world, with women making up 58% of the Saudi student population and only 16% of the workforce. The move increases educational and employment opportunities available to women in the state.

In the Islamic finance sector, women are increasingly encouraged to use these facilities for training and career development, and high-profile female role models within the Gulf are increasing confidence among those seeking a career.

Rehab Mohammed Lootah, senior vice-president of business development and corporate communications at Dubai-based Mawarid Finance, recently became the first woman to be awarded a certificate from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).

Ms Lootah recommends that women should consider adequate training before embarking on a career in Islamic finance: "I strongly encourage women who seek success in the Islamic banking and finance industry to look for training available so they become armed with skills required and tools necessary for successful careers.

"In some Islamic countries, few women have made outstanding achievements that qualified them to hold high profile positions at banks and finance institutions," says Ms Lootah. The lack of appropriate training to enable women to achieve these positions is being addressed as the sector expands, with more industry-specific courses becoming available across the sector to meet the demand for qualified professionals.

In addition to increased educational opportunities, some organisations have established networking organisations specifically targeting businesswomen, such as MENA Businesswomen's Network and Durra. Sharjah Islamic Bank (SIB) is backing the establishment of Durra, a platform for women to network and improve professional development within the Islamic finance industry.

Founder and president of Durra, Fauzia Vohra, says the organisation was created to help women become more empowered and competitive: "[Durra] will mark the beginning of a new chapter in Islamic banking through an initiative that empowers women and seeks to move them up the value chain within the Islamic banking and finance industry the world over."

This notion of female-only business or networking is gathering momentum. Real estate firm Hydra properties has announced its intention to build a tower in Dubai purely for female entrepreneurs. Scheduled for completion in 2010, "Eve's Tower" will allow male workers in the building, but only women can become tenants or owners. According to the developers, the concept will "unleash the latent entrepreneurial talent of

UAE women" and contribute to the region's growth.

Although the tower is the first commercial example of a female-only business space, the concept of an all-female client base is prevalent across the Middle East. Women-only Islamic bank branches have dedicated service areas for women and female-only staff members. Saudi Arabia has long had these branches, reflecting the increasing wealth among Saudi women and their need for independence.

However, sex-segregated business institutions are a subject of controversy. Human Rights Watch, an independent organisation dedicated to protecting human rights, released a report in 2008 resulting from 100 interviews with Saudi women. The report, Perpetual minors: human rights abuses stemming from male guardianship and sex segregation in Saudia Arabia, highlighted that the need to establish separate office spaces for women is a disincentive to hiring female employees. "While this is not discriminatory on its face, since it is directed at both men and women, in practice it prevents Saudi women from participating meaningfully in public life."

Alternatively, separate business spaces may provide increased confidence in an all-female environment, allowing women to feel empowered and independent. Elsewhere, all-female banking branches provide lower-level opportunities for women to gain entry to the sector and progress through the ranks. "Women make up the majority of the national workforce in the UAE banking sector, and this may have contributed to the success of a few women," says Ms Lootah.

Compared with the Middle East, Malaysia is leading female talent in the Islamic banking industry with a number of top appointments. In 2008, Bank Negara Malaysia approved two female chief executive officers of local Islamic banks. Jamelah Jamaluddin was introduced as CEO of RHB Islamic Bank and Fozia Amanulla, CEO of EONCAP Islamic bank.

Tan Sri Dato' Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz is regarded as one of the most influential women in Islamic finance. She has held the post of governor of Bank Negara Malaysia since 2000, having proved her abilities as acting governor during the East Asian economic crisis in 1998.

Dr Aziz was the first woman to attain the position of governor in Malaysia. For a woman to achieve such a senior position in a relatively conservative country is a strong message to aspiring female


Another example of success is that of Dr Engku Rabiah Adawiah, an associate professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia and the world's first registered female Islamic finance Shariah adviser. Dr Adawiah teaches Shariah and civil law at Ahmad Ibrahim Kulliyyah of Laws (International Islamic University Malaysia) and has served as a Shariah adviser to several financial institutions.

Her achievements have placed her as a significant role model, and some may assume her route to the top has been challenging. But Dr Adawiah is confident her gender has been no obstacle to achieving her goals. "I do not find my career route has been made harder because of my gender. I think I have been treated equally. The challenges that I have faced are similar to those faced by others in the field, male or female." Her success may be indicative of her attitude towards her role--determination in achieving certain goals often overcomes any challenges. But is determination enough?

"In the region that I'm in, the industry looks at merit, not gender," she says. In certain areas, gender equality legislation may be needed for women to have the confidence to apply for higher roles. "It depends on the location. In places like Malaysia, no such legislation is necessary--there are enough opportunities. You just need to work yourself towards your goals and prove your merits," says Dr Adawiah.

Islamic finance is regarded as a fledgling industry in North Africa, because of a lack of education and information. But success is attainable for women in the region, as Neveen El-Tahri's example demonstrates. "I have faced all kinds of challenges in my career, such as finding banks to finance the gap in an unknown industry at the time, choosing partners to grow the business with me, leading a company in a man's world and leading men of all ages," says Ms El-Tahri, chairwoman of Delta Rasmala Group in Egypt.

She founded brokerage firm Delta Securities in 1994, followed by the asset management company and investment arm. She is considered to be one of Egypt's premier female bankers, and a 2008 Financial Times "Who's Who" voted Ms El-Tahri to be one of the world's most influential Arab businesswomen.

Although Ms El-Tahri has found her career route challenging, it is not as a result of her gender: "It has been hard, not because I am a woman, but because establishing and running a business alongside the birth of an industry is never easy. "In Egypt, women are more involved in the financial industry as a whole. But the Islamic finance industry is young in Egypt, and many think that women in Islam should never lead men. It remains to be seen, although I am treated as an equal in the sector," says Ms El-Tahri.

But she is more cautious about the evolution of women in Islamic finance: "I think women can be almost equal to any man in the financial sector. But the future for women looks less optimistic on the Islamic banking front, unless institutions are fully dependent on a female client base," she says.

The Islamic finance industry has enjoyed huge growth in the last few years, but a lack of human capital has caused a bottleneck in human resources. An abundance of job openings are flooding the markets, but the shortage of professionals is causing growth to slow. Many believe if more women gained the skills required to work in Islamic finance, they could help secure the future of the sector and expand the industry. "For Islamic finance, there are lots of opportunities for women these days with the fast expansion and need for talent. This need and shortage of skills mean better readiness to accept more women into the financial system," says Ms Lootah.

According to figures released by AT Kearney, the Islamic finance industry in the Middle East will need approximately 30,000 experts over the next 10 years to meet the growth demand. Regions such as the UAE are addressing the need for qualified personnel, which will increase opportunities for women across the globe.

Women seeking involvement in Islamic finance can take inspiration from a number of role models back to the first female entrepreneur in Islam. The late Benazir Bhutto said: "As a Muslim woman, I have great respect for Khadija, wife of the prophet of Islam, because she was a working woman." Businesswomen are leading by example and raising the profile of women in the industry--many should now have the confidence and knowledge to become successful in an increasingly tolerant and equal sector.

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Publication:Islamic Banking & Finance
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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