Muslim Woman Alleges Sexual Misconduct at BlackRock

Essma Bengabsia is a hijab-wearing Arab-American Muslim woman of color and was sexually harassed at BlackRock. BlackRock is an American multinational investment management corporation based in New York City. 

Bengabsia studied finance at NYU Stern School of Business and is  an intersectional feminist who adores those who have paved the path for her, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, Linda Sarsour, and countless more like them.   

She was one of the first hijab-wearing women to work on any trading floor at BlackRock.  During her first month on the trading floor in August 2018, she had several uncomfortable and “strange” encounters. To read her entire story please visit this link here and sign this petition to hold BlackRock accountable. 

One Managing Director mimicked and mocked how she said “Assalamu Alaikum” after he overheard a phone conversation she had with her parents. One colleague explained to other colleagues how “they stone people in the Middle East” because “there are no governments there.” An older male colleague often “leered at her, making her skin crawl.”

I wanted to do something, anything. But I froze. I felt paralyzed, abused.

Essma took breaks during the workday to pray in BlackRock’s prayer room because in Islam, Muslims pray five times a day (each prayer is a few minutes long). Often after her prayer breaks her colleague publicly rebuked her for being away her desk and insisted that she did not work hard enough, although she communicated with him her need for prayer breaks. This kind of adverse action continued on at the firm.

Excerpt from her article 

“On October 11, 2018,  I stood at my desk and had just wrapped up a call. I still had my headset on my head as I focused on my computer screen. Suddenly I heard, ‘Should I do it? Should I touch her? Does it count as sexual harassment if I touch her?’ He stood about one foot behind me, repeating this question to my colleagues. About 10 of my colleagues stood close to him and watched, some laughing, others daring him, ‘He’s not gonna do it. I know him, he’s not gonna do it.’ One woman responded to him, ‘It doesn’t count as sexual harassment if you touch her.’ I wanted to turn around, scream at him as he joked about sexually harassing me, yell at my colleagues for egging him on. I wanted to do something, anything. But I froze. I felt paralyzed, abused.

Just five days before, I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court leading thousands of women protesting the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. I spent hours passing the megaphone to dozens of survivors who shared their stories. As a survivor myself, my wounds were open from the countless accounts of sexual violence I heard. I could not believe what I protested just five days ago was unfolding to me in this moment.”

Essma started a spreadsheet to document her experiences.  She filed an extensive report with HR about all of her experiences. She ran through her spreadsheet and provided dates, times, locations, and names of witnesses for each incident of sexual harassment, racism, Islamophobia, and abusive work environment.

HR stated they would launch an investigation into her allegations.

On May 9, 2019, she had a call with the lead investigator on her case from the HR team so he could share with her the investigation results. They “could not find evidence to corroborate her claims” on sexual harassment.

Essma recalled, “My mouth dropped. I gave him exact dates, times, names of almost a dozen witnesses… and I saw cameras on every part of the trading floor I worked on. ‘No evidence’ was HR’s response.”

She was told that one of the harassers would be sent to counseling in order to learn “more sensitive communication.” According to HR, the remaining colleagues would be scheduled to attend much needed diversity training after considering the allegations that Essma reported. She was promised that training would happen.

After a year of ongoing harassment, HR offered to transfer Essma to another team at a different office. Less than a month later, Essma quit.

Essma learned BlackRock’s HR playbook: They receive an HR report on discrimination, try to quietly address it by moving the victim to a different team at a different office, then build up a performance-related reason to delay the victim’s pay raises or promotions. Their goal is to socially ostracize the victim until he or she is left with no choice but to leave the firm.

More recently, the head of HR at BlackRock sent a company-wide email addressing Essma’s article. They mentioned that the experience described are “uncomfortable to read or hear about.” Essma stated, “The irony – if they discomforted those who simply read about them, then imagine the trauma I endured living through them.”

BlackRock also noted that they may take “individual or group-level discussions” to address problematic behaviors in the workplace. Essma stated that it is true that BlackRock hosted a diversity training and a division meeting with everyone in her unit where one of the heads said that they “must do better.” But that was all.

I  speak up so that other people of color and Muslims at the company do not continue to face what I faced.

She went on to state, “Diversity trainings and a meeting where someone says ‘let’s do better’ do not suffice. These insufficient actions are a signal to the perpetrators that their actions are tolerated, and the only consequence they will face for racism, sexual harassment, and bullying will be yet another diversity training. In this way, BlackRock enables this problematic behavior to continue because it is signaling to its employees that it will not hold them accountable, and so the problem only festers and grows.” She concludes by saying , “I  speak up so that other people of color and Muslims at the company do not continue to face what I faced.”

It is evident that the system is corrupt and unjust – and that Muslim women who wear hijab feel discrimination in the workplace. We should have the right to practice our religion. We should have the right to be treated equally and the right to not be discriminated against or harassed because of our religion, gender, or ethnicity. 

We demand that BlackRock take responsibility and end its discriminatory practices against people of color and Muslims at the firm.

Please sign this petition to hold BlackRock accountable for their actions.

Maliya Naz is a Kashmiri/Pakistani American poet and human rights advocate. When she is not volunteering or translating Urdu ghazals, you can find her giving talks about all things Islam and spirituality.