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EXCLUSIVE: New Forum To Promote Women In Islamic Finance Set For Launch

Harriet Davies

12 June 2013

Islamic finance is seeing a strong revival since the decline which hit around the time of the financial crisis, and one of its pioneers is working to ensure that women play a pivotal role in its global development.

Samina Akram, who formerly ran Merrill Lynch’s Islamic finance Middle East platform, set up her own consultancy, Samak Consultants, after leaving the bank and has for some years now been running an informal network of women in Islamic finance.

Akram is taking this one step further with the launch of a formal initiative planned for later this year: the Women in Islamic and Ethical Finance Forum.

The goals of this are twofold: one is to support and promote women globally in Islamic finance, where Akram has faced many challenges herself, and the other is to get the ethical and Islamic financial sectors talking to each other more closely.

And she has a sound basis for believing she has a role to play here, having in 2013 been named the fifth most influential woman in Islamic finance by Islamic Finance Review.

But she has her work cut out for her: while strengthening a network of women within the growing Islamic finance sector is an attractive prospect, it presents many hurdles.

The industry

The Islamic finance market is valued at $1.631 trillion and grew at an average rate of 20.4 per cent per annum for the last five years, according to the Global Islamic Finance Report 2013.

However, according to Hasan Al Jabri, chief executive of SEDCO Capital, speaking at the Ninth Annual World Islamic Funds and Financial Markets conference, a lack of diversity is a key challenge for the industry, with equity products dominating.

New products are coming on the market however, with Accretive Wealth Management this week announcing a strategic partnership with Aperio Group that enables it to offer separately managed Shariah-compliant portfolios.

The demographics are positive. Muslims represented around 25.7 per cent of the world population in 2012 and this is projected to grow to 30 per cent in 2050, Al Jabri said. However, female Muslims are under-represented in terms of wealth, the work place and political influence.

This perception means that few providers of private banking might be interested in investing to develop their offering for female Muslims, both within their employee and client bases. But Akram thinks this is a misconception, and that firms also have a role to play in being proactive in furthering women’s rights.

“Women control substantial wealth in Bahrain, Saudi Ariabia, Malaysia,” she explains. What’s more, as technology broadens, so do people’s aspirations, she says. Many sons of wealthy fathers are more interested in studying in the US and working in finance than running their fathers’ businesses, she believes, leaving more opportunities for women.

“We need to challenge gender stereotypes,” says Akram. “The failure is in perception.”

And while there is no doubt much headway to be made on women’s rights and opportunities in many Muslim countries, as with most things it’s a varied picture that ought to be approached as such.

People don’t understand the level of power and financial control women have in some parts of the Middle East, says Akram, so they are reluctant to invest the resources and develop the platforms to service them. She believes banks often think they need to go there and “educate” women, giving “Finance 101” classes to women who are running businesses and reading the Financial Times.

What’s certain is that it’s safer not to generalise. Attitudes toward women’s rights are mixed in the Muslim world, especially when it comes to family law – such as divorce and inheritance – with significant financial consequences.

A report last month from the Kuwait Financial Centre, entitled When GCC Women Invest: An Underserviced Market, said that based on its own calculations and taking into account inheritance law, the GCC female high net worth market is worth around $224 billion and accounts for 20.2 per cent of the total wealth in the region. If those calculations are correct, that would put it ahead of Japan, where women control 14 per cent of the wealth, it said.

The picture is also hugely diverse when it comes to women working in finance, with Malaysia standing out as a trailblazer. The governor of the Central Bank there is female, while Islamic Finance Review’s top five women in the sector includes two highly influential Malaysians: Dr Sofia Azmi and Dr Engku Rabiah Ali. Meanwhile, at least two Islamic banks in Malaysia have female chief executives. 

A tough sector

The differences in attitudes towards women’s rights are a microcosm of the variations that of course characterise Muslim countries, which encompass countries as different as oil-rich Islamic states and Asian Islamic states.

Countries also differ significantly in terms of what they consider to be Shariah-compliant, which is one of the barriers that have held back product production. Other barriers to growth have included a dearth of talent when it comes to Islamic finance, says Akram.

“There are so many challenges, and at the same time, it’s growing at such a rapid pace,” she told WealthBriefing.

However, she believes that supporting women in the sector will help solve the talent issue. If financial firms want to encourage these positive changes, she says, they can do two things: work to instill more confidence in their female employees – through impeccable attitudes to childcare, maternity leave, promotion to all levels, etc – and also through mentoring programmes.

Akram credits mentors – at Merrill Lynch, and people whom she has met since – with getting her to where she is today. “It’s because of genuine people, who probably didn’t realise they were my mentors,” she says.

In her early years in the world of Islamic finance, Akram says she felt that as a woman she had to prove time and time again that she had earned her right to be there, and therefore encouragement from others helped counteract this.

In her latest venture she has support from well-known figures in the industry such as Keith Phillips, executive director at British Bankers’ Association.

“London's position as a hub for Islamic finance is winning global recognition. Much work has been done here and abroad to make Islamic finance readily available for all types of stakeholders. However, much works still needs to be done. From a gender perspective, women are still under represented within the Islamic finance sector,” said Philips.

“Recognising the obstacles many women face to progress, or even entering the sector, Samina established the first global women in Islamic finance network here in London in 2007. Whilst it’s an informal group, it has an impressive global network of contacts.”

Phillips’ comments about London as a hub for Islamic finance were echoed last week by Baroness Warsi, a senior Foreign Office minister, who said she wants the City to respond to a sector set to expand by $400 billion over the next two years, according to the Evening Standard.

Islamic = ethical?

One of Akram’s other goals is to emphasise the “ethical” component of Islamic finance. While these two sectors overlap to some extent, the difficulty with “ethics” is that it means different things to different people.

For this reason, some commentators see Islamic finance as being a separate issue, and predominantly only relevant for Muslims. However, Akram says there are non-Muslim buyers of Islamic finance. One of its biggest appeals in her view is the stance it takes on speculative finance – something which has acquired something of a tainted name in recent years, with phrases such as “casino banking” being used frequently in political discussions.

There are many surveys and data samples that attest to the rise in ethical finance, suggesting that if Islamic finance providers can create a broad enough appeal around their products they could tap into a growing investor base.

However, Akram certainly has her work cut out for her. But if anyone can take on a challenge it is a woman who has insisted on her right to be at a table that has very much, for a very long time, been dominated by men.