By Maryam Dehkordi
March 14, 2020
When it comes to the world’s toughest jobs, mining is definitely at the top of the list. Media photographs of miners often show tired men wearing clothing that offers them no protection, and sometimes they are not even wearing hardhats to protect them from falling debris they might encounter on the job.
Photographs of women working as miners are scarce. And a photograph of the only woman working in an Iranian mine could change the way people view mining forever.
Mahnaz Mirzaei was born in Zarand, Kerman, in 1980. She has been interested in mining since her teens and has been working in the industry for 14 years. Mirzaei is currently the head of Sarapardeh coal mine in the district of Kohbonan. “Before me there were women who worked in open-cast mines, but I’m the first woman to go under the ground and mine tunnels,” she said in an interview with the Karbanu website.
Mahnaz Mirzaei holds a Bachelor’s degree in mining engineering, specializing in exploration, from Shahid Bahonar University in Kerman.
She says although many people had told her mining would be a difficult job for a woman and that she would have trouble finding a job, because of her education, it was relatively easy for her. “Many people tried to frighten me about the hard work in mines and to persuade me to give up. But I knew all its hardships, and naturally I became familiar with all the negative aspects of working in a mine when I studied at university. What they said did not distract me from my interest. While looking for work, I found a coal mine that needed a mining engineer. I filled out the application and they accepted me.”
The patriarchal thinking that dominates Iranian society fuels the idea that some jobs are “masculine” — and this is a misconception that women’s movements have tried to change over the years. The women’s movement in Iran has tried to shift ingrained perspectives in society, but despite all these efforts, women like Mahnaz Mirzaei still face discrimination and have to work hard to fight against it.
She speaks about her first experience in a tunnel: “I had entered the mines during my undergraduate studies, but when you enter this space as a job, it’s another thing. I remember on the first day of work, a man who tried to discourage me kept walking next to me in the tunnel. He kept asking me whether I was tired. And even though I was very tired, I would tell him that I wasn’t.”
She also talks about the continuing sexist outlook of some of her colleagues and acquaintances even though she has been working in the mine for 14 years. “From the first day that I went to work in the mine, all of my colleagues were men. It wasn’t a complicated matter for me, but some of my colleagues could not deal with it. They simply said that a woman should not give orders. Or they asked me how a woman could be allowed inside the tunnel. But after a while I was promoted to the head of the coal mine and became the chief of Sarapardeh coal mine. They finally accepted me.”
The Child of the Mine
Mahnaz Mirzai’s family has been sympathetic and supportive. Stereotypes did not limit her, but the anxiety and the dangers of working in the mine were always there. “I worked in the mine before I got married, and my husband knew what my job was my priority, so naturally he didn’t mind and always admired my courage.” Her husband and her brother have both worked in the same mine.
Mahnaz Mirzaei says she returned to work just days after her first child was born, bringing the baby with her to work, despite the difficulties of doing so. She says when she was required to go in the mine, she left her daughter — who she nicknamed “the child of the mine” — with her colleagues in the office. Her daughter is now seven years old. “My daughter is very interested in the mine and often comes to me and says she wants to work in the mine in the future. She is growing up here.”
As head of the company, Mahnaz Mirzaei oversees 150 male workers and a female accountant. She says there are other women working in open-cast mines, but as the head of the mine, she would gladly accept women who volunteered to work underground and in the tunnels.
She has never been afraid of the hardship of working in the industry, saying it is as difficult as any other job can be. In her opinion, making one’s way on the different slopes of the mine, and traveling through the tunnel to reach the extraction site are the most difficult parts of the job. “Sometimes the worker has to stand and work on a 50 degree slope working with a jackhammer. The tunnel is dark; the worker must work in darkness using only a dim light.”
Mirzaei says anyone entering into the job accepts the risks involved, as with firefighting and other dangerous potentially life-threatening jobs. She’s aware that a miner’s working conditions are unique and that there are both physical and mental pressures for those working in the mines.
She has witnessed accidents in the workplace over the years, including physical injuries her colleagues have endured. She has also witnessed two fatal accidents, once in 2000 and then another in 2010. She says she will never forget these experiences. She says she does all she can to improve conditions for the workers.
Mahnaz Mirzaei says she loves her job, and she believes she is proving that she is no less capable than a man; she has fought with many people, and convinced many people of her competence and expertise. “I remember the days when the miners didn’t take me seriously as a mining engineer because I was a woman, but they finally realized my skill and ability. The Sarapardeh mine is one of the best mines in the northern part of Kerman province,” she says.