BASRA, Iraq (AP) — It’s nearly dawn and Zainab Amjad has been up all night working on an oil rig in southern Iraq. She lowers a sensor into the black depths of a well until sonar waves detect the presence of the crude that fuels her country’s economy.
Elsewhere in the oil-rich province of Basra, Ayat Rawthan is supervising the assembly of large drill pipes. These will bore into the Earth and send crucial data on rock formations to screens sitting a few meters (feet) away that she will decipher.
The women, both 24, are among just a handful who have eschewed the dreary office jobs typically handed to female petroleum engineers in Iraq. Instead, they chose to become trailblazers in the country’s oil industry, donning hard hats to take up the grueling work at rig sites.
They are part of a new generation of talented Iraqi women who are testing the limits imposed by their conservative communities. Their determination to find jobs in a historically male-dominated industry is a striking example of the way a burgeoning youth population finds itself increasingly at odds with deeply entrenched and conservative tribal traditions prevalent in Iraq’s southern oil heartland.
The hours Amjad and Rawthan spend in the oil fields are long and the weather unforgiving. Often they are asked what — as women — they are doing there.
“They tell me the field environment only men can withstand,” said Amjad, who spends six weeks at a time living at the rig site. “If I gave up, I’d prove them right.”
Iraq’s fortunes, both economic and political, tend to ebb and flow with oil markets. Oil sales make up 90% of state revenues — and the vast majority of the crude comes from the south. A price crash brings about an economic crisis; a boom stuffs state coffers. A healthy economy brings a measure of stability, while instability has often undermined the strength of the oil sector. Decades of wars, civil unrest and invasion have stalled production.
Following low oil prices dragged down by the coronavirus pandemic and international disputes, Iraq is showing signs of recovery, with January exports reaching 2.868 million barrels per day at $53 per barrel, according to Oil Ministry statistics.
To most Iraqis, the industry can be summed up by those figures, but Amjad and Rawthan have a more granular view. Every well presents a set of challenges; some required more pressure to pump, others were laden with poisonous gas. “Every field feels like going to a new country,” said Amjad.
Given the industry’s outsized importance to the economy, petrochemical programs in the country’s engineering schools are reserved for students with the highest marks. Both women were in the top 5% of their graduating class at Basra University in 2018.
In school they became awestruck by drilling. To them it was a new world, with it’s own language: “spudding” was to start drilling operations, a “Christmas tree” was the very top of a wellhead, and “dope” just meant…