Iraqi women defy social prejudice to work in oil industry

Young graduates brave criticism for taking jobs that require them to live away from home

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Each working morning, oil engineer Safa Al Saeedi dons a safety helmet and heads into a gas complex for another day of challenging conservative prejudices by being a professional woman in Iraq.

One of only 180 women among the 5,000 employees of the Basrah Gas Company, she sees herself as a trailblazer and is encouraging other women to join the industry.

"Society does not accept that a girl can live outside the family home," said Ms Saeedi, 29, who works in Iraq's southern oil and gas fields around Basra.

For many, a single woman working outside the household in a male-dominated sector is frowned upon and it is a hard task for women to break out of the role of wife and mother traditionally assigned to them.

"I often hear them say to me: 'You are almost 30, you will miss the boat! You will end up single,'" Ms Al Saeedi said. "It makes me laugh but I do not answer."

Female participation in Iraq's labour force is "one of the lowest in the world" at 13 per cent, said a report last year by UN Women, the agency working for gender equality, and the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia.

The report said surveys had found that "most Iraqis agree that university education is equally important for both sexes" but "attitudes towards equal rights in employment are discriminatory against women".

The World Economic Forum ranked Iraq bottom in women's economic participation and opportunity and put it 152nd out of the 153 nations assessed in its 2020 Global Gender Gap Index.

Ms Al Saeedi, who graduated in 2014 after studying engineering in Basra, was immediately employed by Shell for a job that "required spending some nights away from home".

Her mother opposed the role because she was "afraid of what people will say and that it will affect my reputation and my chances of getting married", Ms Al Saeedi said. "It was a challenge."

But she pressed on, rising through the ranks to become a team leader in the Basrah Gas Company, a joint venture majority-owned by the Iraqi government, with Shell and Mitsubishi.

Her job requires her to live on site for a month at a time, in company accommodation. After work, she plays sports or jogs around the vast gas storage tanks.

On leave, she returns home to Basra – if she is not indulging in her passion for travel, which has taken her to about 30 countries so far.

I hope to reach a management position, because you rarely see women in these positions, even though Iraq has many powerful and brilliant women
Safa Al Saeedi, oil engineer

"I hope to reach a management position, because you rarely see women in these positions, even though Iraq has many powerful and brilliant women," she said.

It is a tough path to follow.

"I was initially overwhelmed with fear, because I was in a purely male environment," said Dalal Abdelamir, 24, a chemical engineer who works on the same site as Ms Al Saeedi.

"At the beginning, I thought that I was inferior, that I would never have the required level. I was even worried to ask questions," she said.

"But this job and this position has taught me not to be afraid, not to hesitate and not to fear that I cannot do it but to believe that I can."

Ms Abdelamir joined the company through a graduate programme which hired 20 men and 10 women.

"We didn't go to Basra University saying we wanted to recruit women," said Malcolm Mayes, managing director of Basrah Gas Company.

"We went there saying we wanted the brightest students."

Updated: January 31, 2022, 12:58 PM