First Time I Went Up Crane, The View Was So Breathtaking. I Could See The Seawater Flowing Beneath Me And I Felt Like I Was Touching The Sky.

By Yusra Salim 

Have you ever noticed those giant giraffe-like structures in the distance the last time you visited the seaside? Did you find yourself wondering what they were and how they move or work? What is a day in the life of someone who operates them like?

Those massive structures are known as quay cranes and they play a vital role in port and shipping operations. Used to load and unload shipping containers from the maritime vessels that carry them, these cranes form a crucial node in the supply chain of numerous goods we enjoy and take for granted. So remember that the next time you open up a bag of imported crisps or turn on any of your high-end electronics.

As for what life is like for those who work them, who better to explain than the pair of Umama Saleem and Faryal Anwar. The former an electrical engineer who graduated from the NED University of Engineering and Technology and the latter an electronics engineering wiz from the Dawood University of Engineering and Technology, Umama and Faryal are at present the only women licensed to operate these mechanical behemoths in Pakistan.

How it all started

“Soon after graduating from NED, I started working with Fauji Fertilisers at their sites in Ghotki and Mirpur Mathelo,” Umama recalled while sharing how her journey started. After serving there for one year as a managerial trainee, she left that job since it entailed working in some of the country’s most remote areas and she yearned to live and work in the city.

After leaving Fauji Fertilisers she spent a stint in a consultancy firm for a few months. And then the real adventure of her life began when she joined Hutchison Ports Pakistan as a trainee in 2017.

“It took me few months to get promoted to a permanent position as a maintenance engineer in the electronics department in 2018,” Umama said. According to her, the upper management, upon realising that she and her colleague Faryal were passionate and enthusiastic about their work, offered both of them a chance to train for operating quay cranes. “For me, it was a new thing so I accepted the training offer immediately,” Umama shared, remarking at how the opportunity fell into her lap.

Although their present destination is the same, Faryal’s journey took a different route. She had been working as a service engineer in a firm for three months when she applied for a job at Hutchison Ports. “This company was bigger and the opportunity they were offering was better in every way,” Faryal said. “My father wanted me to be a doctor like my elder sister so I wanted to prove to him how engineering was a much better fit for me by doing something big in my field. I wanted to show him that the path I chose was right for me,” she told The Express Tribune.

Awed by the sight of the mighty cranes and the high level of technical expertise it takes to operate them, she leapt at the chance to take on this new job and joined Hutchison in September 2017.

Thriving against all odds

The world may have made huge strides in gender equality over the past few decades, but there are still domains that are largely thought of as the preserve the preserve of men. Maritime and port operations continue to be one of them, not just in Pakistan but across the world. The global percentage of women in the maritime industry is still estimated to sit at around two per cent. What is a more telling statistic is that an overwhelming 94 per cent of these women are confined to the cruise industry in non-technical roles.

While Umama and Faryal primarily served as maintenance engineers for their company, having a license to operate the quay cranes meant both of them could be called and counted upon by their management when they were in need or short of qualified operators. Sharing their own experience in the industry, they said they did not face any discrimination from their colleagues or within their company. The issue of acceptance, according to them, mostly arose from other acquaintances.

“A lot of people asked me questions and still continue to do so. It started when I embarked on engineering as my profession and now, most of them ask me how I am able to do such a technical job,” Faryal shared. The training that the company offered them after they both joined was exhausting and grueling. It entailed 300 hours of manual training on the quay crane and another 300 hours remotely from the operation room. The entire process took them between four and five months in total.

Undaunted, the female duo worked hard to get their certification in crane operations. They also remembered fondly the support they received from their CEO Rashid Jamil, head of engineering Ejaz Ahmed, manager Noman Ali and their trainer Ibrahim Ustad, who also happens to be the oldest crane operator in the company.

When they finally got the certification in 2018, the news made some waves after it was posted by their company on its website. “That feeling when I was handed my certificate was unexplainable,” said Umama, still feeling the excitement she had felt back then.

Furthermore, she shared how from there, the non-profit ‘Ladies Fund – Invest in Yourself’ approached them to highlight their achievement and efforts to be the first females in the field. “There was a category of technical accomplishment, and the fund awarded the pioneer awards to us in our field as Faryal and I were the first females to achieve this milestone in Pakistan,” the electrical engineer shared. The received the award from the Sindh governor in October 2019 in ceremony aimed at encouraging both them and other women to step up and make a name for themselves in all technical fields.

The life of a crane operator

Talking about her experience, Umama, who is now a mother of a three-month-old son, shared that for her it was easier to learn to operate the quay crane as she had already worked in remote areas such as Mirpur Mathelo and Ghotki under extreme weather conditions.

“Being a graduate in electrical engineering I knew the basic components of cranes,the terms and technologies and the highly technical jargon. All I needed to learn was how to operate it,” she said. She credited her instructor Ibrahim Ustad with doing a tremendous job in training her and Faryal. “He was polite and calm, and that made for a smooth learning experience. Being the oldest crane operator in the company, he welcomed both of us and shared every bit of knowledge he had,” Umama said. “The training turned out to be valuable in life on a many counts. It was a difficult procedure to learn, but my ustad taught me patiently,” she said with appreciation.

According to Umama, the manual crane operation lessons were considerably more difficult than learning to operate the machines through the control room. “While you are on the crane, you feel every jerk each time the crane moves. That makes for a vastly different experience than the control room, where you are just handling a joystick.”

The risks and stakes in operating the crane are high too, she pointed out. “Several cameras are installed and one has to be very vigilant while operating because even a slight mistake can cause drastic accidents and can cost the company a bigger loss than one can imagine.”

The cranes Umama worked on reach a height of almost 83 meters or 240 feet. According to her, climbing those monsters to reach her workstation could be a challenge in itself. “Yes, there are lifts installed in the cranes, but they can only take you up to a certain point,” she said. “Beyond that, you have to traverse the crane through a vertical maze of ladders, staircases and platforms. At some points, you don’t even have those and instead have to climb up through the girders.”

Umama said her organisation was clear about the risks and the physical challenge of operating quay cranes from day one. “The very first day, while I was giving my interview for the job, the company asked me if I have a phobia of heights or anything like that,” she said. “That same day, they gave me a first hand tour of the crane as well and that experience was beyond explanation.”

Even so, for Umama, who back then was coming from an experience with harsh weather, rigorous work, and a physically exhausting environment in interior Sindh, this kind of work environment seemed a better fit. “The only thing I asked about was whether the workplace environment was safe for women to work and believe me, it was the safest workplace I can be in,” she recounted. “Never did I experience any harassment or disparaging remember. I do not recall a single instance where I did not feel safe during the entire time I worked there. I believe it is the same for Faryal and she is still happy there, doing what she loves.”

For Faryal, her first experience on the crane was no different than Umama’s. “I was asked about a fear of heights as well. I like to respond to that idea with a poem: ‘Up above the crane so high, like a diamond in the sky’,” she told The Express Tribune. “The First Time I Went Up The Crane, The View Was So Breathtaking. I Could See The Seawater Flowing Beneath Me And I Felt Like I Was Touching The Sky. I thought to myself how fun this job was going to be and I was definitely hooked on the spot.”

Like a video game

Both Umama and Faryal liken operating the gigantic metal structures to playing a video game where you can move objects around using joysticks. Sharing her feelings, Umama said to her it also feels like she is inside a blockbuster movie. “The first time I touched the crane’s controls, I thought to myself ‘wow, this is just like playing a game in real life’. But obviously, in the case of manual operation, that game comes with an exhausting physical ascent up the structure of the crane itself,” she shared. “Depending on weather conditions in Karachi, the difficulty can increase drastically as well,” the licensed crane operator added.

For Faryal, the experience was exactly like that of a Playstation. “You are looking at screens and using controls to work things. In the meantime, big changes are taking place on the ground.”

Sharing her memories while working at the port, Umama said that on a few occasions, when the company was short of operators, both she and Faryal were called to operate all the cranes. “Those were the days when I felt myself to be very important because I was helping my company in its time of need and I knew a skill which could ease out the problems it was facing,” she said.

The most memorable moment for Faryal was when she handled a cargo container perfectly in her very first attempt. “I managed to deliver the special cargo container in the first attempt without any damage, hesitation or mistake. At that, everyone complimented me and told me that I was now a certified operator,” she recounted proudly. “Everyone at the workplace was encouraging towards us.”

A temporary hiatus?

Although Faryal continues to work at the port and is called upon by her company to operate quay cranes as and when needed, Umama, for now, has had to step away from that life for the time being. Although she enjoyed the complete support of her parents when it came to her career, even when it took her to the far-flung areas of Sindh for a year or so, some unexpected health complications forced her to leave her job.

“My parents never pressured me into marriage, but I myself wanted to settle down. I was married in February 2019 and although it was an arranged affair, I had continued working with no issues,” she said. “All that only changed when I was expecting and came to know about some underlying health conditions in May last year. Although not that big of an issue by themselves, the novel coronavirus pandemic and the greater risk I faced if I contracted it meant I had to give that life up, at least for now,” she told The Express Tribune.

According to Umama, the upper management at her workplace were both appreciative and understanding when she announced her decision to quit. “Their response has always been overwhelming. After I got married and even when I decided it was time to leave, they tried their best to accommodate as much as they could. But for reasons, I had decided I would be leaving for good.”

Never say never

For now, despite all the awards she received and the accomplishments she made, Umama, who currently stays with her in-laws, does not know what the future holds. At present, she is completing a master’s course from the Pakistan National Shipping Corporation in control engineering. She has already finished here coursework and is gearing up to work on her thesis.

Sharing her ideas about her future, however, Umama said she does plan on going back to operating cranes at some point. “I hope to resume that work once my son reaches the school-going age,” she told The Express Tribune. In the meantime, she has made a platform to help women grow their skills and to facilitate them in case they need any help. “I am building up an organisation which can help empower school-going girls to pursue their dreams and secure better education facilities,” she revealed.

Umama said she has been proud of what she has achieved in life so far as what she and Faryal have done has opened up many doors for more women and girls. “I believe they too should now see that they can acquire the skills and work in a field that has traditionally been dominated by men,” she stressed. “Our own achievements make both me and Faryal immensely proud, but what makes us even happier is that we have laid the foundation in opening an entire profession to women in Pakistan.”

Lighting a spark

Traditionally speaking, quay crane operators have all been from the area of Keamari in Karachi, which lies close to the port. Although the avenue of taking up that profession runs in the various families that live their, it has so far been confined only to men. “By learning how to operate these cranes, me and Faryal hope we have lit a spark for the women of these families in particular,” Umama said. “We hope they too can see this as an opportunity to earn good money alongside their male family members. If we can do it, so can they.”

According to Umama, her experience as an engineer who has worked in a handful of industries in Pakistan has showed her what holds women back. “I feel it this lack of empathy for the opposite gender. It just shatters the confidence you need to work in the field and this mindset is not confined to just one profession,” she shared. “It happens across a range of industries that have only a handful of women working as engineers. They are taken for granted and if they try to share their opinions, they are hushed more often than not.”

“It has taken my sweat and blood to just be accepted as part of the professional fraternity and still I don’t think the mentality that pervades such fields has changed much,” Umama added. “I do not think I have brought about any big change, but I have strived to perform my duties as best as I could and I have never backed off from a challenge or an opportunity to learn.”

With all her struggles despite tremendous support from her family and husband, she said their is a dire need to do something to encourage and empower more women. “We as a developing nation are far behind in getting our women equally involved in the realm of science, technology and medicine,” Umama said. “At the same time, us women also need to have the courage and confidence to step up and show the world what we can do. Otherwise, no degrees in engineering or otherwise will be sufficient to increase the representation of women across various sectors and professions.”

The enthusiastic engineer who is keen to work for social welfare added that, “To help address this issue, I have created a forum to discuss the issues faced by women working in the domain of STEM.”

“Especially other ladies engaged in fieldwork. We will empower each other by sharing our experience and opportunities to help others like us pursue their careers to the best of their abilities,” she added.

A global effort

World wide, in recent decades, their has been a push to encourage and empower more women to enter the field of maritime and port operations. Since 1988, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a specialised United Nations agency responsible for regulated shipping, has been running a gender and capacity-building programme open the sector to women around the globe.

In recent years, the IMO has helped put in place an institutional framework to incorporate a focus on gender in international policies and procedures, and has incentivised access to training and employment opportunities for women. At the end of 2019, the IMO assembly also adopted a resolution to urge further firm action to advance gender equality in the maritime sector in coming years.

Even so, the sector as of now shows some of the lowest levels of female representation in various roles and opportunities. More so, most of the few women that have made it into this traditional male-dominated realm continue to be confined to ‘gendered’ roles and generally find themselves having to surmount several hurdles in order to leave a substantial.

Up till now, women quay crane operators have been rarity around the world. In that context, what Umama and Faryal have achieved appears all the more remarkable.

This news was originally published at Tribune.