Female oil engineers in Iraq buck norms, take jobs on rigs
BASRA, Iraq — 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 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 don 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 an 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.
“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. 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.
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.
Every work day plunges them deep into the mysterious affairs below the Earth’s crust, where they use tools to look at formations of minerals and mud, until oil is found.
“Like throwing a rock into water and studying the ripples,” explained Rawthan.
To work in the field, Amjad, the daughter of two doctors, knew she had to land a job with an international oil company — and to do that, she would have to stand out. State-run enterprises were a dead end; there, she would be relegated to office work.
“In my free time, on my vacations, days off I was booking trainings, signing up for any program I could,” Amjad said.
When China’s CPECC came to look for new hires, she was the obvious choice. Later, when Texas-based Schlumberger sought wireline engineers she jumped at the chance. The job requires her to determine how much oil is recoverable from a given well. She passed one difficult exam after another to get to the final interview.
Asked if she was certain she could do the job, she said: “Hire me, watch.”
In two months she traded her green hard hat for a shiny white one, signifying her status as supervisor.
Rawthan, too, knew she would have to work extra hard to succeed. Once, when her team had to perform a rare “sidetrack” — drilling another bore next to the original — she stayed awake all night.
“I didn’t sleep for 24 hours, I wanted to understand the whole process, all the tools, from beginning to end,” she said.
Rawthan also now works for Schlumberger, where she collects data from wells used to determine the drilling path later on. She wants to master drilling, and the company is a global leader in the service.