Basically, Sania Khan had dropped out.
She split from her husband earlier this year despite pressure from her family and is trying to start a new chapter, she said in online posts. She got her own apartment in Chicago, miles away from the man she described as “toxic.”
She documented it all on TikTok. From the pain of leaving a marriage she “shouldn’t have been in to begin with,” to the shame she felt about her South Asian community, to the heartbreaking process of starting her life anew. She spoke openly and thousands listened.
“Women are always expected to remain silent,” Khan wrote in a post. “That’s what keeps us in screwed up situations in the first place.”
But living independently and working as a photographer, she said she was finally reclaiming her autonomy.
Then she was shot.
Last week, Raheel Ahmad made the 11-hour drive from his home in Alpharetta, Georgia, to Khan’s home in Chicago, where he allegedly came to kill her. After his family found he was missing from his home, they asked for a welfare check at Khan’s apartment, where they suspected he might be staying.
At the residence, Chicago police officers found a 29-year-old woman and a 36-year-old man unresponsive, both with gunshot wounds to the head. The woman was pronounced dead at the scene and the man was taken to hospital, where he later died.
Coroners identified the bodies as Khan and Ahmad. They decided her death was murder and his was suicide.
As a Pakistani-American, Khan’s assassination sent shockwaves through the diaspora. Other South Asian women who have gone through divorce say they have faced the same stigmas and isolation when attempting to leave abusive partners.
“I could see myself in her,” said a Marathi woman living in the United States. “The fact that she not only left him, but was able to survive and be happy and do well, he couldn’t live with that.”
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said her ex-husband threatened to harm her and her children.
“He wouldn’t have hesitated to kill me,” she said.
Experts say Khan’s death and the posts she has penned have brought to the surface overdue conversations about shame, sexism and patriarchy in South Asian communities.
“Going through a divorce as a South Asian woman sometimes feels like a failure in life,” Khan wrote in a TikTok post last month. “The way the community labels you, the lack of emotional support you receive, and the pressure to stay with someone because ‘what people are going to say’ isolates you. It makes it harder for women to walk out of marriages they shouldn’t have had in the first place.”
A woman cannot say no
In South Asian communities, the pressure to marry and stay married transcends the individual. Survivors say they were pressured in their youth to “just say yes” for the sake of the family.
“There’s this stigma in our community that puts pressure on women to sacrifice themselves,” said Rachna Khare, executive director of the Houston-area survival organization Daya. “Sacrificing your emotional and physical well-being for the good of others. And while we all want to be altruistic people, it’s an undue burden, especially for women.”
One Punjabi woman said that when her parents began arranging their marriage, she fought as hard as she could.
“The fact that a girl has the guts to say no to a guy is absolutely incredible, especially in my family,” she told NBC News, also choosing to remain anonymous for security reasons. “How dare you say no to that guy?”
Eventually, unable to take the guilt any longer, she married a man she considered a friend. But the relationship quickly faltered. After her marriage, her husband began verbally abusing her. When she tried to fight back, it escalated to physical abuse.
Lost and traumatized, she turned to her family for advice and support in finding a way out.
“I was really upset and shared it [my mother] how he hit me,” she said. “She said to me, ‘You just got married, so don’t talk to me about it.’ I did not know, what I should do. My parents, who have been my emotional support all my life – my mother tells me that I have to stay in this marriage because she couldn’t take the shame.”
She wasn’t trained to recognize abuse, she said, and she never imagined anything like this would happen to her. But her parents, friends, and the wider community told her the same thing: that she needed to stay with her husband.
Years later, after two children, escalating violence and cancer, she finally filed for divorce.
“Having lived in this traditional cultural environment for so long, I haven’t had a single person in my life say it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” she said. “Everyone around me has told me that as a woman, I have to be the key person to keep the family together… That I’m selfish.”
Her parents only accepted her decision when they visited her home and witnessed how acute the abuse had become. And after she left him, she said all her friendships dissolved overnight. She also heard about Sania Khan’s death, she said, and recognized what she had been through.
“The culture around us makes men so entitled,” she said. “A woman’s role revolves around a man. It wasn’t just this man [Sania’s husband]it was her whole family.”
“What will people say”
The pool of survivors that Khare has worked with spans South Asian communities. But there’s an ideology that she said is fixed in everyone.
“The survivors we work with all come from different backgrounds, different faiths, different income levels and different levels of education,” she said. “But one thread that connects every survivor we’ve worked with is this constant thought, ‘What are people going to say?'”
Reputation culture plays a big part, she said, and women bear the burden of living up to men’s expectations, even at their own expense. According to Khare, family members often participate in this emotional abuse. But it doesn’t always look the same.
“It can be extreme when it comes down to it, ‘If you get a divorce, you’re going to lose your whole family,'” she said. “And then there are things that are a little more subtle. For example: “Are you sure you want to do this? Is there another way?’”
There are also family members who might support the divorce but treat it like a “blot on the family,” she said, and keep it a secret from friends and family to protect their reputation.
“‘We don’t want to break up a family,'” Khare said. “That’s okay, but now there’s a woman who’s dead. Why isn’t this the final breakup of a family?”
“A man child can do no wrong”
Patriarchal systems create South Asian men who are raised to feel more valuable than women, said Neha Gill, executive director of the South Asian survivor organization Apna Ghar. It begins in childhood, survivors added, when girls are asked to help in the kitchen and boys are allowed to be carefree.
Gill’s organization is based in Chicago, where Khan died, and she’s seen the impact resonate with a community of women who resonated with their TikToks on a very personal level. In South Asian circles, she said, interpersonal work needs to be done to raise men to hold themselves accountable.
“There shouldn’t be that innate ‘boys are better’ thing,” she said. “South Asians celebrate when they have a son. There are these underlying ideas that remain. It doesn’t matter if people came to the US.”
As she tried to leave her husband, the US felt like an isolating place, the Marathi survivor said. The courts didn’t help and she lost faith in the justice systems. And on top of that, her community treated her like an outsider.
“People around you treat you like you’re crazy,” she said. “All these years it was just me, my son and my daughter trying to figure out what to do. We as a society should say that divorce…there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s good.”
It took all of her strength to overcome generations of sexism instilled in her since childhood, the Punjabi survivor said, but in doing so she realized the depth of injustice in what was said of South Asian women is demanded around the world.
“I was drowning,” she said. “And people didn’t want to help.”
https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/tiktoker-sania-khans-killing-hits-home-divorced-south-asian-women-kill-rcna39609 “He would have killed me”