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SMC professor reflects on research in Malaysia

| Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has a recorded 200 rainy days each year, but Saint Mary’s anthropology professor Laura Elder’s experience in the capital city last fall was far from gloomy. Elder spent six months observing the major roles Malaysian women play in Islamic finance, an industry in which all transactions must uphold the tenants of Sharia law.

Malaysia distinguishes itself from other nations because it provides women with opportunities to hold positions in the financial sector, Elder said.

“If you’re looking at Wall Street, if you’re looking at … London, it remains a very difficult endeavor to operate in those places as a woman,” Elder said. “I got quite interested in thinking about ‘Well, what’s going on with Islamic finance, and why are there so many women and what’s happening?’”

According to Elder, many Malaysian women work on the regulatory side, where they make rules about what aspects of banking comply with or violate Sharia law.

“Malaysia is really quite different because women are taking such a significant role,” Elder said. “In conventional finance, women have been trying for a really long time to get into the game and to have some rule-making power, but it’s really quite difficult.”

Elder said she conducted interviews with people who work in a wide range of fields, as well as attended training sessions with Malaysian citizens studying to work in the financial realm. These research strategies showed her the varying reactions Malaysians have to women’s high levels of involvement in Islamic finance, she said.

“As with most things, it depends on who you talk to,” Elder said. “Among the regulators, I would say there’s huge support just like in the U.S. context. You find a lot of women on the regulatory side and a lot of support on the part of the government for supporting women in the industry.”

Elder said she encountered some opposition to women’s unprecedented participation in Islamic finance.

“There is a lot of pushback about that,” Elder said. “It’s an ongoing conversation in that country in terms of both how Islamic finance should be organized and also what role women should have in the industry. It remains up for grabs and is very controversial.”

Elder said she spoke with Malaysian people about what would be the most effective way to organize a just financial system.

“The main takeaway from my research is actually how to improve processes and aspects of our social justice in Malaysia itself,” Elder said. “How could the industry at large support women, and also why would it be useful for the industry at large to support women?”

Perhaps other nations could adopt some of the ways Malaysia gives women agency in the financial realm, according to Elder.

“My expectation was that there would be some things happening in Malaysia that would be potentially a model or some ideas that could be replicated in the U.S.,” Elder said. “For example, there are some very simple things that happen in terms of support for child care and support for leave that happen in the Malaysian context which might be useful for the financial sector in the U.S. to think about.”

Elder said she hopes Saint Mary’s students understand the value of learning about new lifestyles and staying informed of the realities in other parts of the world.

“In the U.S., we think about Islam a lot, but we don’t get necessarily the full spectrum, the full picture,” Elder said. “We get little tiny slices, and sometimes it’s hard to put those into a coherent picture of what’s going on around the world.”

Elder said one way students can gain global perspectives is to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship, which would enable them to travel to a different country and learn other cultures and ways of thinking, as she did during her research.

“We think about a lot of these issues just in the U.S. context, and if we actually think comparatively and think a little bit more globally, I think we’ll be better at whatever it is we’re trying to do,” Elder said. “Confronting these issues in other contexts and climates really helps us to figure things out for ourselves here as well.”

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About Martha Reilly

Martha is a senior majoring in English literature and political science. She currently serves as Saint Mary's editor but still values the Oxford comma in everyday use.

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