* Women sharia advisers a small, growing breed in Malaysia
* No women Islamic scholars working in the Middle East
By Liau Y-Sing
KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 3 When Malaysian Aida Othman
signed up for the new law programme at the Islamic university,
she did not expect to become one the few women with their hands
on the levers of the world's $1 trillion Islamic finance sector.
Rising global demand for scholars who can advise firms on
compliance with Islamic legal principles called sharia is behind
the quiet and almost accidental way in which women are growing
into a small but powerful force in a male-dominated business.
"There are not many women involved my job," Aida, who
manages the sharia advisory practice at Malaysia's biggest law
firm, told Reuters.
"I'm glad to be able to show to young graduates and young
scholars in my field if you're interested enough there is a way
into sharia advisory," the 41-year-old, who went on to study at
Cambridge and Harvard, said.
Islamic finance has embraced women relatively rapidly in its
30-year modern history, as burgeoning demand for expert lawyers
and growing female education rewrite the rules of the business.
As Islamic finance expands 15-20 percent a year and enters
new markets from Australia to South Africa, so the need has
grown for more sharia advisers who can structure financial
transactions according to Islamic rules that crucially include a
ban on interest.
Sharia advisers are typically Islamic law scholars who are
able to marry sharia with international banking and legal
practices to help banks devise sharia-compliant products ranging
from mortgages to hedge funds.
There are 221 Islamic finance scholars globally but only a
handful are in high demand, with the top six occupying almost a
third of the 1,054 board positions open to Islamic experts, a
Funds@Work report issued this year shows.
This small circle of men dominate the boards of Islamic
banks but there are now about 10 women sharia advisers in
Malaysia, home to the world's largest market for sukuk, or
The number of women sharia scholars in Malaysia has more
than tripled in the last five years according to some estimates.
There are no official figures, but practitioners say there
are no women sharia advisers in the Middle East.
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MIDEAST LAGS MALAYSIA
While the culture has opened the way to the rise of female
advisers in Malaysia, more conservative social mores have kept
women sidelined from the Islamic finance industry in the Gulf
Arab region, experts say.
"The need for sharia advisers will increase," said Mohamad
Safri Shahul Hamid, deputy chief executive at Malaysia's MIDF
Amanah Investment Bank, a sukuk arranger.
"Will we see more women? In Malaysia, we will because they
will want to follow the footsteps of noted women scholars. I'm
not so sure about the Middle East. I still think they have to
address the cultural issue. But they are moving in the right
direction as, at least commercially, there are a lot more
avenues for women to join the workforce."
More than half of Malaysia's 27 million people are Muslim and
follow the Shafi'i branch of Sunni Islam, which is regarded as
taking a more moderate stand on many issues.
The Middle East is home to different strands of Sunni and
Shi'ite Islam which mean Muslim women enjoy vareying degrees of
freedom. In the United Arab Emirates, for instance, Muslim women
face few restraints compared to Saudi Arabia, where they are
forbidden from driving and travelling unchaperoned.
Malaysian Muslim women face little, if any, restrictions on
their movements, have equal educational opportunities and women
comprise about half of the country's total workforce.
Muslim women in Malaysia routinely hold political office, run
large corporations and the country's central bank and capital
market regulator are both led by women.
EONCap Islamic, the sharia banking arm of Malaysian
financial group EON Bank EONP.KL, and the local unit of Kuwait
Finance House (KFIN.KW) both have women chief executives.
Women scholars also advise Bank Rakyat and Bank Islam
(BIMB.KL), which is Malaysia's second largest sharia-compliant
lender, as well as AmIslamic Bank and the local Islamic banking
arms of HSBC (HSBA.L) and Standard Chartered (STAN.L).
The rise of women sharia advisers in Malaysia was partly due
to a central bank ruling that a scholar can only advise one bank
and one insurer at a time to avoid conflicts of interest.
A SIGNIFICANT MINORITY?
Men still outnumber women five to one at sharia scholar
conferences in Malaysia, but women have had a hand in major
controversial rulings such as approving the bai inah sale, which
fed into fierce theological debates that divide the industry.
With or without women, different legal schools of Islam mean
some deals are acceptable to some Muslims but not to others.
"Sometimes banks have no other options," said Shamsiah
Mohamad, a Standard Chartered Saadiq Malaysia adviser who has
sanctioned the use of the Islamic sale and buyback structure.
"Based on the Shafi'i school of thought, inah is
sharia-compliant but it is not accepted in the Middle East. We
gave our approval reluctantly."
Shamsiah, who wears a headscarf and traditional Malay dress,
speaks only a smattering of English and utters her views in
barely audible tones, but confidently fields questions on
complex topics like foreign exchange forward contracts.
The 43-year-old is part of an 11-member team of national
level sharia advisers, which issues rulings governing the
world's largest sukuk market. But she says her career ambitions
take into account her family and her limited grasp of English.
"In Islam, we need our husbands' approval," Shamsiah, who
has a five-year-old son, told Reuters at the university where
she teaches Islamic banking.
Most women advisers say they have not experienced gender
discrimination although some say they are not always taken
seriously at conferences, for instance.
"My duty is to speak out because to me that is my view. It
is not a matter of whether people accept you or not," said HSBC
Amanah Malaysia adviser Rusni Hassan, one of eight children
raised by a single mother in a village in northern Malaysia.
"I am used to it. I just say whatever I want to say,"
And regardless of any setbacks, Aida is optimistic about the
prospects for women who want to get into the sector.
"Traditionally issuance of Islamic rulings and fatwas have
been monopolised by men," she said.
"There are no express rulings prohibiting women from being
involved in it. There are opportunities for many more, for
ladies who are willing to step up."
(editing by Lin Noueihed)
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