AT&T must pay Muslim woman $5M in workplace harassment case

For more than 10 years, Susann Bashir worked as a fiber optics network builder for AT&T in Missouri. The Kansas City Star reports that she was subjected to daily religious discrimination and harassment during the last three years of her employment there—co-workers called her a "towelhead," and asked if she planned to blow up the building.

She was already pursuing a religious discrimination case against her employer when, one day, her boss grabbed her head-scarf and exposed her hair during a routine meeting in his office. The head and hair are considered a "private part" for Muslim women, so snatching her hijab was perceived as a powerful personal violation.

Snip from The Kansas City Star:

Bashir sued, and this week a Jackson County jury awarded her $5 million in punitive damages against Southwestern Bell/AT&T. (...) Thursday’s overall award appears to be the largest jury verdict for a workplace religious discrimination case in Missouri history.

More on the case in this Associated Press item.

(Thanks, Oxblood Ruffin; thumbnail of photo via KC Star by Todd Feeback)


  1. What disgusting behavior on the part of her boss and coworkers. They should all be fired.

    1. Unfortunately, the suit will be paid by AT&T, which will pass the costs on to the customers, instead of seizing the boss’s and coworkers’ 401ks and pension funds, which would be more appropriate. Public shaming of the offenders might also be appropriate here.

      1. The judgement will be paid, eventually, by AT&T’s insurance carrier. AT&T’s insurance rates will go up, in theory, and…well, I’m on Sprint.

  2. You’d think that a huge corporation like ATT might have managers who were familiar with basic workplace policies that have been around since the 1970s.  Apparently not.

    1. The one thing spending any time in HR teaches you (my wife’s an HR consultant) is that all that training on anti-discrimination and sexual harassment? Penetrated the brains of most executives like water on asphalt.

      1. Cant spell “Who Cares” without HR.~ (Not to be mean to your wife, its just an old joke)

      2. They should test them and multiply their salary by their test score.

    2. Every new wave of bigotry brings with it a new generation of morons. There are lots of people out there who wouldn’t dream of saying boo to a black person, but will insult Muslims without a second thought.

  3. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Missouri! (I go to college here but plan on moving after graduation oh god get me out of here)

  4. Saddens me that so many people are apparently stuck with a “you must live your life the way I think you should” mantra, down to personal clothing decisions.

    I mean, if Dr Who has taught us anything, it’s that hats are cool!

  5. I’m not a muslima, and if I were to have a hat/scarf/something on my body taken off, even if it was something I wore once in a while, by a co-worker I would feel horribly threatened and would be definitely not  cool. What are these people, animals?

    1. Exactly. Pulling any bit of clothing from any co-worker is bad. And if hair is considered a private part, then pulling off the head scarf is like pulling off someone’s top. Or bra, even.

  6. As a non-believer I’ve got to say I’m really glad she won. While centered around her religious beliefs, this abusive behavior has little to do with religion, and everything to do with power.

    In addition to the monetary award, I wish there could be a greater amount of shaming over this. Assholes need to know they’re going to be called out if they engage in such ugly behavior. Otherwise I’m afraid decisions such as this are too abstract for them.

    1.  I’m with you. I don’t subscribe to any customs or belief systems. But, I really don’t care if someone else does, and I’ll respect that to the point of being treated differently than any other flavor out there. That’s just an HR nightmare.

      I would never, ever, think that grabbing/pulling a head-scarf would be ok. Try taking a crucifix necklace from someone and see how that headline turns out.

      This makes me sick!

      1. You might not subscribe to any belief systems, but I’m pretty sure you follow some customs.

        For instance, many societies refrain from consuming the meat of other human beings. Most adopt a certain class of body coverings without which individuals are not permitted outside the home. Nearly all restrict certain types of sexual conduct and/or limit where such conduct can be practiced. 

        Are you sure you don’t subscribe to any or all of the above? 

        1. What you describe there are illegal things. 

          Before you go on, I just want you to know that I DO have a subscription to Nudist Nympho Canibal Monthly.

          1. They are illegal, as is our custom.

            Also – do you have a megaupload of those?

          2. Mantissa128I used to :( gotta go dig the back issues out of grandma’s attic now.

    2. Also, I’ve been watching tv most of the day (I’m at home due to illness) and haven’t heard/seen anything on the big news networks about this. Where are he outraged reporters ? Had this been the other way around, ie: Muslim boss forcing her beliefs on others there would be a media storm happening at the moment. Such hypocrisy.

      1. Good point. I could maybe understand the paranoid right wing american press not wanting to give this story much exposure (even though i don’t agree with it), but there’s nothing on the BBC news site either. Given the size of the payout, somebody surely must think this is worth reporting.


        1. The BBC is a UK based site and this is a case at a state level in Kansas? 

          Seriously these sorts of cases happen all over the world, all the time. It’s hardly surprising its not getting picked up by UK media.

      2. Can I just interject that I’m sooooo tired of the “if it were this other imaginary situation, so-and-so would be outraged/not be outraged” argument?  It’s just a meaningless assertion.  

        Now, I’m sympathetic to your intentions.  Certain media channels certainly seem to have a hysteria about Muslims and run with all sorts of fake controversies about them.  

        BUT, one thing you learn by paying attention to the media is that it’s pretty difficult to predict how they are going to respond to anything, and it’s pretty hard to actually show bias.   This story may yet “grow legs” and travel from the internet to the news, like so many others have recently.  (I often find that I hear about things on BoingBoing a whole week before it gets regurgitated by my local talking heads.)  

        And, if “the opposite” were to  happen (which I think relawson imagined much better, above) who knows whether it would be a big deal.

  7. I want a five million dollar hat. :/

    (it’s a joke…but seriously…i want a five million dollar hat)

  8. The concept of the god(s) may be silly, but assuming headdresses are allowed in the workplace, this is wrong.  Is it $5M wrong?  Welcome to the U.S. of A., where the lawyers always win. 

    1. Is three years of emotional abuse, racism, and the fear of losing your livelyhood if you speak out, worth $5M?

      1.  Should she receive more money than she could possibly have made in any other way simply because she was lucky enough to have a stupid boss?

        I don’t argue that the boss should be penalized, but I dislike the built in extreme profit for the woman with a $5M award – it is high enough to create a profit motive for others who would like to receive the same money. 

        1.  Or high enough to create a motive for even corporations to actual enforce policy and basic standards of decency. If it was a $100,000 fine, they’d shrug and wait for the next time.

          1.  I think firing the jackass and spending 5 million on a campaign that explained why firing the jackass happened while giving her a modest compensation would work out better for the community. Don’t you ?

        2. Folks keep suggesting that possibility but don’t ever back it up. I’ve never seen anything to suggest the epidemic of people who want to be abused for profit are any more real than the welfare queens.

          Companies that don’t care, though, are everywhere. You’ll forgive me if I worry more about them.

        3.  Yes. If you want to get a big company to change its behavior, you’ve got to hit it hard enough so that it notices. Five million isn’t too much; I’m more worried that it might not be enough.

        4. Man, I wish I was “lucky enough” to work in a narrow field with few prospects outside of an incredibly bigoted and hostile workplace. What a dream!

          (She’s not even actually going to get all of the $5M you ass)

        5.  $5M isn’t out of line just for earnings replacement, if you are talking about replacing her income for the rest of her career.  It’s possible that she’ll find it hard to find employment after this; no matter how justified, employers might not want to hire someone they know to be willing to take an employer to court.

          If she was making decent money as an engineer and had another 30 years in front of her, $5M is not out of line, especially considering that the lawyers are probably going to take a cut.

        6.  She didn’t have a “stupid” boss, she had a racist asshole boss who broke the law, allowed an employee to be bullied, and attacked her.

        7. I’m sure she felt real “lucky” while she was being harassed and having her integrity assaulted in such a way. 

          Good scam Mrs. Bashir!

          Also, this probably isn’t even half of a single days profits for AT&T

      2. if i knew that i would get it, yes, but that’s the problem i suppose. (note also, if this “reward” were uniformly applied, the economy would collapse overnight.)

    2.  If it was a dignified female member of your family was stripped naked or partly naked by her boss, and AT&T then fired her for not returning to work for that guy, what would you limit the monetary amount to?  

       In the article it seems to suggest that damages in the state are capped at 5x’s the amount lost, which seems to be 120k in lost wages, so at most she may be getting 600k, minus attorney fees.

    3.  Her lawyer is one of the good gals. She takes cases against giant corporations hoping to one day get paid for the hours she spends trying to show the company that what they did was wrong and illegal.

      Based on restrictive, anti-plainitff laws in Missouri, the plaintiff will never recover the full $5 million.

      I’m sure the lawyer and the plaintff would have taken much less if the company would have recognized the mistake and let her go back to work under the right circumstances.

      Nobody wants to file a lawsuit. This case went on for at least 4 years. This is not a get rich scheme. It’s justice.

  9. Without getting into the religious aspects of this case (and should religion be granted special status now that we actually know how the world works), Snig’s comment seems fair, but with one exception – I wouldn’t take the Lawyers charges out of her allotment under law.

      1.  Nope, my point was would it be a $5M settlement without the Supernatural overtones?

        1.  If a woman was sexually harassed in the same way, I’d expect a $5 million settlement as well. It is the stick that is administered to companies to teach them that bad behavior will get them punished. An officer of a company (including any manager) represents the company. This is why Human Resources departments around the world have been forced to come up with diversity training and the like over the past few decades. This isn’t Mad Men.

        2. There is gender bias/bullying here, cowardly predatory bias, independent of the vile and obvious religious bias.
          I’d like to see if this fckuer would go through with knocking the kippa or skull cap off a Jewish man or Muslim man (especially a large one.) I’d like to see him try to knock the turban off a Sikh man. 

          Of course I’d wager he wouldn’t try because this arse likely only bullies women – but only if they cannot kick his butt. 

          Another thought – if a man persisted in knocking off the hat of a woman in the office, repeatedly over three years, it might be interpreted that he is showing inappropriate and unwanted interest in the  opposite-sex co-worker.

    1.  The fees are paid by the loser (ATT), above and beyond the damages the jury awarded to the plaintiff (which are capped by Missouri state law)

  10. Let me preface this by saying that I certainly don’t know the intimate details of the case, nor do any of us. 

    Also, pulling off anyone’s head scarf (or head band, or arm band, necklace, jacket, shoe, or other piece of clothing) is not behavior that should be tolerated in a work place.

    That said, would we even be discussing this question were it not a piece of clothing endowed with magical powers?  Would she have received that magnitude of an award if the head scarf was not connected to the Supernatural?  I don’t think so.  (but I will freely admit none of us know the actual details of what happened, and must assume that the judge/jury are the only ones in a position to make that adjudication… )

      1.  Did you bother reading my comment before replying? 

        “pulling off anyone’s head scarf (or head band, or arm band, necklace, jacket, shoe, or other piece of clothing) is not behavior that should be tolerated in a work place.”

        1.  I did and then I saw your dismissal of it since it was just a magic cloth.

          Which cultural norms do you respect? Just classic American ones? Pulling off a woman’s headscarf is the equivalent of partially disrobing a woman in, oh, a rather large swath of the world. I guess pluralism isn’t your thing. They need to be more ‘merican, right?

          1.  The guy was an ass.  Stipulated.  Should he be disciplined?  yes.  No question he should be.  In my company, I’d fire him.

            Now, all that aside, how many years income do you want to pay her in financial compensation for this transgression? 1? 10? 100?

            And who should pay?  The owners of the company?  The other workers?

            Did it suck, yes.  Did she die?  Is she unable to work and earn a living from this point forward?  Is she now a ward of the state?

          1.  Nope, but I don’t think that grants 5 million either. Why don’t you really try to read what he posted instead of going on with this charade.

        2. I think a $5,000,000 fine shows it isn’t tolerated just dandy, along with discriminating against people because of their religion.

    1. I imagine people might be comparably upset if a woman was constantly harassed for her gender, and they ended up stealing her top or pants, though the only magic they have comes from social convention.

      I understand you’re trying to imply we shouldn’t care so much about religious beliefs, but would you actually consider them less important than clothes that are mainly worn because everyone else has them?

    2. You’re viewing this with your “I’m a skeptical atheist” filter turned up too high.

      The head scarf is traditional dress worn to satisfy the standards of modesty in a particular community.

      That’s not magic, that’s culture. And while religion and culture may well intertwine, you would do well to learn how to disentangle them. It will make understanding situations like this much easier.

    3. Yes, she would have. 

      This is because the company wasn’t ordered to pay that money because someone took her “magical hat”. They have to pay that money because of a  systemic long-term workplace harassment that they failed to address or outright ignored in many and a significant manner.
      That harassment was based on her religion.

      The “hat incident” is merely a single event in a long line of events that happens to simplify the whole case in terms of reporting because of its significance to her faith and that it somehow has become the singular symbol of ‘being Muslim’ in the public consciousness.  It is not WHY they have to pay the money.

    4. So what, in your mind, would be an appropriate figure? $1M? $100K? Ten bucks?

      Keep in mind that the $5M is punitive damages. What number do you think would be enough for AT&T to sit up and take notice?

      1. Actually, in my country, when sexual harrassment at work happens, the person who does it will have to pay 3 months of his salary to the victim.

        As for this woman, I would not keep working in a place where I do not feel good.

        1. So in your country, the employer holds no responsibility for allowing harassment to occur? And jobs in every industry are so plentiful that finding another is no big deal? Interesting.

          1. What he said is that the employees harassing someone do hold responsibility for it, which is not necessarily the case when the employer just swallows the cost. I think having the harassers feel at least some of the financial pain is a good thing.

            I also think that just 3 months of pay would be way too little for this, so I hope that in his country, the employer also still has to pay quite a bit. Note that he didn’t specify whether that also happens. It might.

    5.  So, if it were your atheist but modest relative who worked among nudists and/or aborigines, they disparaged her wearing clothes daily for three years, claimed she was a murderer and eventually her boss stripped her partly naked.  Wouldn’t be a big deal?  I don’t think you have to invoke religion or magic to find their actions traumatic.  People get traumatized from this kind of behaviour.  It can changes their lives, makes them afraid to be around others. 

      Al Jigong Billings has the point, millions is the scale that companies notice.  If the fine were hundreds of thousands, AT&T wouldn’t be motivated to change.  AT&T has 4.8 billions in profits last year, and has 190k employees.  Millions in fines doesn’t exactly bloody their nose, but it makes the papers.   It gets read by us, by other companies.  It may make this sort of behaviour, which seemed more based on xenophobia and bullying than religion, less likely.  AT&T likely has already paid 10o’s of thousands in lawyer costs to prevent her from getting anything, and to make others less likely to come forward.  When they lose something like this, it may make society better.   

    6. Is it fair to compare pulling the scarf off someone who believes it’s indecent to go without scarf to pulling one off someone without a similar investment in it? Or would it be better to compare it to pulling a shirt, bra or skirt off someone who believes it’s indecent to go without?

      Do people have the right to dress in a way they consider decent? That’s basically what this amounts to.

    7.  We can leave aside the religious aspect entirely and look at it from a purely cultural point of view.  In her culture, the head scarf is seen as covering a private part.  In our culture, shirt/bra is seen as covering a private part.  In both cases they are parts of the body that both sexes have but look different and therefore can be seen as an object of desire by the opposite sex.

      In that light, ripping off the head scarf of a person who views their hair as a private part is really no different than ripping the bra off of a woman who views their breasts as a private part.

      It’s entirely possible that a non-believer from a Muslim country may feel the same way about covering their hair, and should receive the same respect.

  11. After being asked about blowing up the building repeatedly I’d respons “I’m getting there.”

    1. And then they tip the FBI, they arrest you and you get to spend the rest of your life in a cell.


  12. You wouldn’t be able to.  If you were actually in her position, you’d risk being taken to a secret prison and held indefinitely.  Snark is fun when you’re safe at home (and likely white, male, able-bodied, relatively well-off, etc, etc, etc), isn’t it?

  13. She was treated like that in KANSAS? SHOCKING!!!  The cornerstone of intelligence and decency that is middle America would treat someone like this? Say it ain’t so!

      1. Whoops. No drinking and commenting for me. 
        Oh, who am I kidding?
        And there’s no reason to hate on middle America or anywhere, it just gets frustrating.

  14. As if I needed another reason to hate AT&T and Missouri. I’d like to see these people publicly shamed as well but since  it’s Missouri they’d probably get a parade instead. I’m a bit surprised she managed to get a sympathetic jury. 

    I’m curious as to whether any co-workers stood up for her over the years. This is the point that always disturbs me the most.  We all know the workplace and management in particular are rife with assholes but where are the people of conscience? America seems to increasingly become a country where all the neighbors close the curtains when someone on the street gets dragged away by the goon squad or has a cross burned in their yard.

    1. Yep, the Midwest, the part of the country that has gone hard-Right and claims everyone else has gone hard-Left.  At least Missouri stopped flying Confederate flags a few years ago…

  15.  You know I often look at stuff like this and wonder what sort of people do this. Its unkind and inhuman to gang up and haze a fellow worker. Never mind the law, what sort of people are wandering our streets that can do this sort of thing. Dont they have any empathy with anyone? I shudder to think how they must treat their own children and worse what a poisoned legacy those children must have. The law ought to give short sobering prison sentences to the offenders as well as fining the company.

    1. I know! AT&T is a bunch of money grabbers! They should give her WAY more.

    2. When dealing with massive corporations, that is the best way of getting their attention and forcing leadership to come down hard on those who are responsible.

    3. As pointed out in the article, and by many other commenters she’s not getting $5M. She’s getting $600,000 and paying her laywers. I imagine the state gets the rest, but I don’t follow US law too closely.

    4.  Revenue
      US$ 126.723 billion (2011)[3]

      Operating income
      US$ 9.218 billion (2011)[3]

      Net income
      US$ 3.944 billion (2011)[3]

      Total assets
      US$ 270.344 billion (2011)[3]

      Total equity
      US$ 105.534 billion (2011)[3]

    5.  The jury decides that number, not the plaintiff. I can almost guarantee the plaintiff did not request a specific number.

  16. It’s nice to live in a country where someone not of the majority faith can score a win against discrimination.

    There are a lot of countries where the government and legal system would support the harassers.  I’m very thankful not to live in one of those.

  17. A clarification: Head and hair isn’t *inherently* a private part in Islam. At least, it isn’t akin to genitalia. (Here’s a good time to mention that I am not a Muslim, but I have had several Muslim friends over the years, traveled to a few predominantly Muslim countries, and through marriage and conversion have Muslim family members. I base this on conversation and observation. )

    Modesty is the point. Whether or not a Muslimah covers her head or face has much to do with the culture in which she (or her fanily) practices and perhaps her orthodoxy. In Indonesia, for example, head coverings were the exception. In Morocco? More covered than not, heads were covered, but not always. A college friend, Gabonian-Moroccan raised in Paris: never wore a head cover. Nor did a Bangladeshi friend raised in London. A black American friend raised in the faith wears one most days.

    I don’t say this to belittle her former manager’s actions. If I had been in her shoes, it might have ended with me handcuffed for assault with a stapler.

    I say it as a more general “Hey Muslims make up almost half of the World’s population. There is some diversity in their mix. And not everything you ‘know’ is accurate.”

  18. She won’t get anywhere near $5M, regardless of the lawyer’s cut.  Suits of this magnitude are always appealed and in most cases, the awards are cut by large amounts.    The new settlements never make the press.

    In the very famous McDonald’s, “hot coffee”, lawsuit, the jury awarded the plaintiff, $2.7 million in punitive damages. The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000, and this was despite the fact that the judge called McDonalds’ conduct reckless, callous and willful.

  19. I have to say that as an atheist who even supported the burka ban in France (and I was living and working there at the time), I cannot help but show utter contempt for the way that this woman was treated.

    I think that it is ridiculous to wear these things for “religious” reasons, but as long as it isn’t the extreme burka (or other symbols of total enslavement or hatred), then that is a person’s right to wear it openly. And, frankly, regardless of how one feels about how stupid it is to wear it, debate on the subject stops at the moment that a person is assaulted in this way. Pulling her head-scarf away and taunting her is beyond the pale and she deserves this money. She was treated in a completely bigoted fashion and I can never, ever, support that sort of conduct no matter how much I think that religion is stupid and disagree with it in every single way.

    And as for that dick who was her boss, I hope he got his ass kicked out of the company. If I was AT&T, I wouldn’t tolerate that sort of behavior.

  20. I’m a Missouri attorney who personally knows this lady’s attorney.  She put in A LOT of time and hard work to bring this case to a jury trial.  I wouldn’t be surprised if a substantial five figure amount of money was advanced by her firm to prepare the case (which would not have been reimbursed if the case was lost).  She was faced with “scorched earth” defense tactics and a phalanx of attorneys opposing her.  A jury trial is always a crap shoot, even with good facts. 
    The Good News:  If verdict upheld on appeal the lady will get $120,000 in actual damages plus $300,000 in punitive damages.  The other one-half of the “collectible” punitive damages ($300,000) however, will get paid to the State of Missouri by statute.  She will also be entitled to statutory interest (which, prior to tort reform in our state was 9% but it now pegged to market rates).  Attorney’s fees will NOT be taken from the share going to the lady.  Her attorney will submit an itemization of her time and expenses and a hearing will be held to ascertain its accuracy and reasonableness.  The outcome of that hearing will determine the attorney fee award for which AT&T will be responsible. 
    The Bad News:  What is overshadowed by the 5 million dollar headline verdict is how this jury verdict will be whittled down by over-zealous tort reform that caps punitive damages, shares the punitives with the State, drags out payment of any judgment because of low interest accrual, and makes class actions difficult to bring (remember, a lot of small economic harms caused by big business do not always add up to one big case worth pursuing because of these constraints).
    Now think hard whether this result, as good as it seems on its face, will make a difference to AT&T.

  21. There’s a reason why I moved outta that state as soon as I could. Remember a while back when bOINGbOING had that “Find the others” caption under Tim Leary’s photo?

    Yeah? Well, the others, the bOINGbOING-type others, are very few and far between. There’s a few left in St. Louis, I still keep in touch with them. But they are all white. I’m not.

    There’s a reason why I moved outta Mizzerah…

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