Women hold a special position in Islam. When asked whom one should respect, Prophet Muhammad responded “Your mother” three times before he said “Your father”. Islam gave women the right to own property 1,250 years before the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act. Islam gave women the right to inheritance, sustenance and many more. Most importantly, Islam introduces the concept of fairness and justice for all, affirming that the only thing that will elevate one’s position is the depth of one’s religious conviction.
People, however, continue to live the tradition. Take the US for example. Women could only vote in 1920 after the ratification of the 19th Amendment and yet even in the 1960s, US women needed their husband’s permission to open a bank account in their own name. And only after Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974 that a single woman could get a loan without having to bring a man to cosign for her.
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted 25 years ago during the Fourth World Conference on Women, aims to ensure equal power and rights for women. In 2015, all UN member states adopted the UN Sustainable Development Goals where gender equality and empowerment of women and girls are set as Goal No 5. However, 2020 is about to end and the UN reported that not much has changed.
Review of 2020
In the World’s Women 2020: Trends and Statistics online portal, the UN reported only 47% of women of working age participated in the labor market compared to 74% of men. Women globally held only 28% of managerial positions (2019), 18% of CEO positions of enterprises surveyed in 2020 and 7.4% of CEO positions in Fortune 500 corporations.
In the Islamic finance industry the gap exists. Comprehensive surveys and statistics on gender equality in the industry are lacking so as to present reliable data in areas that matter. That could be because Islamic finance is a relatively new industry in some jurisdiction or, in some others, it is prevailingly seen as the industry where women’s participation is less expected.
There has not been any female Shariah scholar in the Middle East. The public record reveals an insignificant number of women holding executive leadership positions across the MENA region. Malaysia and Indonesia are the two countries where women’s representation could be seen across the various areas that relate to the Islamic finance industry.
Alas, we are witnessing a decline in these two countries in the number of female leaders holding decision-making positions in the institutions or entities whose policies and/or actions could draw the face and fate of the industry nationally and globally.
But all is not lost. Despite all the negativity one can infer as the effects of the pandemic, it also forces the opening of new doors and opportunities to many including the Islamic finance industry. If we have to put three positive aspects that the pandemic has presented, they are the story of information technology, the story of survival and the story of resilience.
The pandemic forces people to resort to online options irrespective of personal preference; the pandemic forces people to the verge of survival; and as the pandemic has left many with no other options, people get creative and they resort to all available measures to survive and the story of resilience is now being written and guess what, more women have turned up to take their place as part of the digital economy.
One such story in the area of Islamic finance is fintech. While gender disparity exists in this industry too, the gap is comparatively narrower and more so in Islamic fintech. For example, 26% of Islamic fintech founders are women and that is one in every four, as compared to only 17% in conventional fintech. Similarly, a quarter of the Islamic fintech staff base is female.
Looking forward, there is increased hope for a greater role for women following the election of Kamala Harris as the vice-president of the US. We do not expect much change to the landscape in terms of the various reasons that place women in the current position. However, the circumstances and the hope will motivate more women to rise, take part and play more active roles during and post the pandemic.
It is reported that there are around 800 million Muslim women worldwide of which over 150 million are active economic and labor participants earning close to US$1 trillion. Next year, more women with an Islamic finance academic background will graduate and join the workforce pool, and we anticipate that women will claim a larger share of the Islamic finance industry which is projected to reach US$3.5 trillion by 2024.
The World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 projected the overall global gender gap will close in 99.5 years. A top-down approach is crucial. In 2021, we do not expect significant changes to the policy to achieve gender parity; not when the world continues to face uncertainty as to when the pandemic will end, as the economy struggles and people are focusing on living the new norms.
Despite policy efforts at the global level, we do not see a significant change to the regulations or policies or premeditated steps taken to achieve parity across countries. If anything, the statistics show that the gender gap remains wide in terms of equal pay, market participation, access and the chance to senior management and leadership. Nonetheless, we will see a surge in female participation generally and in the Islamic finance industry given the pandemic, and see that women are more adaptable and are survivors of the natural selection process. The pandemic forces people to move to a digital world. When it comes to gender disparity, the use of technology could close the gap as technology is blind — it cares not of its users’ gender and anyone can have access irrespective of gender.
The WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 states that the economic participation and opportunity gap is the only dimension where progress has regressed and it is estimated that we have to wait for 257 years before gender parity can be achieved. Hence, we need to see progress in terms of regulations and policies. We need national leaders’ determination to ensure equal access, participation and opportunities for the overall benefit of the nations. The Islamic finance industry should be at the forefront of this for Islam is the religion that had accorded recognition of women’s rights, position, etc, and the concept of equality, justice and gender parity over a thousand years before developed countries did.