Three female change-makers blazing the trail in Islamic finance

As women, we don’t have a voice. We are not seen 

by HABHAJAN SINGH / pics courtesy of GIFF

WOMEN are under-represented in business and finance. Well, at least that is what most of the surveys tell us. It is probably even more challenging in niche areas like Islamic finance. 

“I was the only woman in the room. In many meetings, that was always the case for me,” a senior Islamic finance banker once told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR). 

The ground may be slowly changing, though we have to go back to hard data to see the actual situation on the scene. But you certainly have more women in Islamic finance. That is very much evident in Malaysia, where a number of them have taken on prominent roles in leadership. 

At a recent Islamic finance event, three women shared their experiences. They are Islamic finance scholar Prof Dr Engku Rabiah Adawiah Engku Ali, Islamic and ethical finance entrepreneur Samina Akram and conventional banker turned financial platform founder Nadia Ismadi. It is instructive to listen to them, as they share what prompted them to take on their individual and varied journeys. 

Nadia’s Ethical Platform 

Nadia runs an ethical finance platform, Pod, which enables the underserved and gig workers to access financial services. The company behind this venture is SaphX Technologies. 

Prior to diving into Islamic finance, she was in the banking world, running tasks on business development at Nomura Asset Management. Over the years, she was taken aback by the exorbitant interest rates charged by illegal lenders in Malaysia. 

“I thought, how is this possible? This is a real problem that people are facing out there,” she shared her story at the recently concluded Global Islamic Finance Forum (GIFF) 2022 in Kuala Lumpur. 

“Out of curiosity, I looked at Islamic finance, where you wouldn’t be charging interest, which would be better for those individuals. From there, it was the tip of the iceberg. We started with a very simple proposition, and then, we slowly built the different pillars as the needs of customers arose,” she said, according to a transcript shared with TMR. 

Pod describes itself as a financial well-being platform to enable gig workers in South-East Asia to save money, get access to financing, build credit trails and consume other financial products. It was launched as a micro-saving platform focusing on nudging users to save towards their financial goals. With a deep understanding of users’ propensity to save, the promoters said they have built an artificial intelligence-enabled alternative credit scoring engine to offer Shariah microfinancing that will not only help gig workers deal with unexpected expenses but also build credit trail to get access to more sophisticated financing from the financial institutions. 

Nadia has a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom, Accounting and Finance) from Curtin University, Malaysia. 

Engku Rabiah Adawiah Breaks into SAC

Engku Rabiah Adawiah holds the distinction of being the 1st female scholar to break into the ranks of BNM’s SAC

While Nadia is relatively a new kid on the block in the world of Islamic finance, you cannot say the same for Engku Rabiah Adawiah. 

Now, here you have a well-known and well-respected personality in the Islamic finance sector. She holds the distinction of being the first female scholar to break into the ranks of the Shariah Advisory Council (SAC) of Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM). That momentous entry of the first woman took place in 2006, a good nine years after the formation of the powerful committee at the Malaysian central bank. 

In essence, SAC acts as the highest Shariah authority for Islamic financial institutions in Malaysia. The Central Bank of Malaysia Act 2009 (CBA 2009) reinforces the roles and functions of the SAC as the authority for the ascertainment of Islamic law for Islamic financial businesses which are supervised and regulated by BNM. 

The SAC assumes a pivotal role in ensuring the consistent application of Shariah rulings by the Islamic financial institutions in Malaysia, according to information on the central bank website. It adds that the Shariah rulings by the SAC serve as the main reference for Islamic financial institutions to ensure end-to-end Shariah compliance in product structuring and implementation of their financial activities. In addition, the CBA 2009 provides that Shariah matters brought to the court or raised in any arbitration proceeding must be referred to the SAC for clarity and certainty. 

As with the rest of its members, Engku Rabiah Adawiah was appointed to the committee by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, based on the advice of the finance minister after consultation with BNM. There are two women among the current nine members. The second is Dr Marjan Muhammad, who was the research director at International Shariah Research Academy for Islamic Finance (ISRA) from 2013 to 2017. 

“When I came back from my PhD, I was asked to teach company law. Then, friends asked me to join a number of conferences on Islamic finance. Discussions during those conferences really triggered my interest,” Engku Rabiah Adawiah told the forum. 

She said her turning point came when she was invited to be on the Shariah Committee of Bank Muamalat Malaysia Bhd. 

She has a massive presence in Malaysia, at least, when it comes to Islamic finance. She chairs the Shariah Committee of Yayasan Pembangunan Ekonomi Islam Malaysia. She is also a member of the Shariah committees at various outfits, including the Securities Commission, Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) and Labuan Financial Services Authority. She is currently a professor at the Institute of Islamic Banking and Finance, an institute under the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).

Samina is the managing partner of Samak Ethical Finance, which describes itself as an independent, international Islamic and ethical finance consultancy

Samina’s Entrepreneurial Path

Samina is today the managing partner of the London-based Samak Ethical Finance Ltd, which describes itself as an independent, international Islamic and ethical finance consultancy. It specialises in working with conventional financial services firms that are new to the Islamic and ethical finance arena to gain credible market entry and seek to further strengthen the position of those firms already committed to the sector. 

“I’m so glad I took on the entrepreneurial path,” she told the forum organised by the Association of Islamic Banking and Financial Institutions Malaysia (AIBIM). 

Prior to this, she worked for investment banks Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank, before turning to the world of enterprise. One of her early ventures was setting up the Women in Islamic & Ethical Finance Forum (WIEFF) in 2007. 

“As women, we don’t have a voice. We are not seen. When I entered the Islamic finance sector, I’d go to a conference and there would be 300 men and literally, three women in the audience. Setting up the WIEFF was really about promoting women and having some kind of a forum. It started with 30 people at a kebab house in London, and today, we have 14,000 members,” she said. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition