Engku Rabiah Adawiah Engku Ali says she became the first female Islamic finance scholar after failing to progress in her preferred field of juvenile law.
Now Engku Rabiah is among at least 16 women experts in Malaysia and Indonesia helping to solve a shortage of industry talent.
“My initial interest wasn’t on Islamic banking or finance, I was doing more on child law,” Engku Rabiah, 43, said in London last month. “But when I was planning for my PhD, I couldn’t get a supervisor.”
While the Kuala Lumpur-based Islamic Financial Services Board estimates demand in the $1 trillion industry is increasing 15 percent a year, the need to certify Shariah-compliant products from boards of scholars is creating bottlenecks.
About 50,000 professionals will be needed globally over the next five to seven years to meet demand, Ishaq Bhatti, the director of Melbourne-based La Trobe University’s Islamic banking and finance program, said in December.
Malaysia’s Shariah Advisory Council has two female scholars on its 11-member board and Indonesia has six women on its panel of 35 experts.
There aren’t any female scholars in Islamic finance in the Middle East as women haven’t found opportunities in the male-dominated field, said Mohamad Nedal Alchaar, secretary general of the Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions, in Manama, Bahrain.
“As the industry grows, women will have more opportunities to become Shariah scholars because necessity will trump gender biases‚“ said Omar Shaikh, a board member of the Islamic Finance Council UK, which runs the only global training program on conventional finance exclusively for scholars.
Malaysia is demonstrating that the best “are allowed to rise to the top,” whatever their gender, said Daud Vicary Abdullah, global Islamic finance leader at Deloitte Corporate Advisory Services in Kuala Lumpur.
Opening opportunities to women widens the talent pool and will help the industry “develop faster,” said Mulya Siregar, director of Islamic banking at Indonesia’s central bank.
There is a lack of talent in the Islamic finance industry, according to Sally Raj, country manager at Robert Walters Malaysia, part of London-based Robert Walters, a recruitment consultancy with 43 offices in 20 countries.
Higher salaries may be offered to executives with niche skills in the industry, especially those with work experience outside their home country, she said.
Engku Rabiah, who was appointed a scholar for Bank Muamalat Malaysia in 2001, has advised on eight Islamic bond sales worth about 200 million Malaysian ringgit ($66 million).
Sales of Malaysian ringgit denominated sukuk soared more than fourfold so far this year to 8.5 billion ringgit from 1.9 billion the year before, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Shariah law doesn’t forbid women from becoming scholars, Shaikh said. One of the most revered scholars was Prophet Muhammad’s wife Ayesha, he said. The only obstacles women face today, especially in the Middle East, are cultural and social, he said.
Twenty-two percent of women in the Middle East are employed, compared with 54 percent in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, according to November 2009 data from the International Labor Organization.
“Asia is a step ahead of us,” the AAOIFI’s Alchaar said.
Engku, who has seven children, said she wanted to see more woman in the Islamic finance industry.
“I’m not saying the male scholars are not concerned,” she said. “But perhaps there are things female scholars might be able to appreciate more.”