For all intents and purposes, Sania Khan had gotten out.
She had separated from her husband earlier this year, despite pressure from her family, and was trying to start a new chapter, she said in online posts. She got her own place in Chicago, miles away from the man she described as “toxic.”
On TikTok, she documented it all. From the pain of leaving a marriage she “shouldn’t have been in to begin with,” to the shame she felt at the hands of her South Asian community, to the heart-wrenching process of starting her life over. She spoke openly, and thousands listened.
“Women are always expected to stay silent,” Khan wrote in one post. “It’s what keeps us in messed 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 to death.
Last week, Raheel Ahmad made the 11-hour drive from his Alpharetta, Georgia, home to Khan’s Chicago apartment, 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 thought he might be.
In the residence, Chicago police officers found a 29-year-old female and a 36-year-old male unresponsive, both with gunshot wounds to the head. The woman was pronounced dead on scene, and the man was transported to the hospital, where he later died.
Coroners identified the bodies as Khan and Ahmad. They ruled her death a homicide and his a suicide.
As a Pakistani American, Khan’s killing sent shock waves through the diaspora. Other South Asian women who have been through divorces say they have faced the same stigmas and isolation when trying to leave abusive partners.
“I could see myself in her,” said one Marathi woman who lives in the U.S. “For her to have not only left him, but being able to survive and be happy and do well, that was not something he could live with.”
The woman, who chose to stay anonymous for safety reasons, said her ex-husband had 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 made leading up to it have brought to the surface overdue conversations about shaming, sexism and patriarchy in South Asian communities.
“Going through a divorce as a South Asian woman feels like you failed at life sometimes,” Khan wrote in a TikTok posted last month. “The way the community labels you, the lack of emotional support you receive and the pressure to stay with someone because ‘what will people say’ is isolating. It makes it harder for women to leave marriages that they shouldn’t have been in to begin with.”
A woman can’t say no
In South Asian communities, the pressure to get married and stay married goes beyond the individual. Survivors say that growing up, they were pressured to “just say yes” for the good of the family.
“There’s this stigma in our community that puts pressure on women to sacrifice,” said Rachna Khare, executive director at Houston area survivor organization Daya. “To sacrifice their emotional and physical well-being for the good of others. And while we all want to be altruistic human beings, it’s an undue burden on women specifically.”
A Punjabi woman said that when her parents first started looking to arrange her marriage, she fought as hard as she could.
“The fact that a girl has the gumption to say no to a guy is completely unbelievable, especially in my family,” she told NBC News, choosing to stay anonymous for safety as well. “Like how dare you say no to this guy.”
Eventually, when she could no longer take the guilt, she married a man who she thought was a friend. Quickly, though, the relationship turned sour. After their wedding, 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, hoping for guidance and support in finding a way out.
“I was really upset and I shared with [my mother] how he had hit me,” she said. “She told me, ‘You’ve just gotten married, so don’t talk to me about this.’ I didn’t know what to do. My parents, who have been my emotional support all my life — my mom is telling me I need to stay in this marriage because she couldn’t bear the shame.”
She wasn’t trained to recognize abuse, she said, and she never thought something like that would happen to her. But her parents, friends and entire community were telling her the same thing: that she had to stay with her husband.
It wasn’t until years later, after two kids, escalating violence, and a bout with cancer, that she finally filed for divorce.
“Living in that traditional cultural setup for so long, I did not have one single person in my life who said it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” she said. “Everyone around me told me that as a woman, I have to be the key person in keeping the family together … That I’m being selfish.”
Her parents only accepted her decision when they visited her house and witnessed how acute the abuse had gotten. And after she left him, she said all her friendships dissolved overnight. She too heard about Sania Khan’s death, she said, and she recognized in her all the things that she had been through.
“The culture around us makes the men so entitled,” she said. “A woman’s role revolves around a man. It wasn’t just that man [Sania’s husband], it was her whole family.”
‘What will people say’
The pool of survivors Khare has worked with spans South Asian communities. But there’s one ideology that she said holds firm among all of them.
“The survivors that we’re working with me come from all different backgrounds, different faiths, different income levels, different education levels,” she said. “But one thread that ties every survivor that we have worked with together is this lingering thought of, ‘What will people say.’”
Reputation culture looms large, she said, and women bear the burden of fitting mens’ expectations, even if it’s at their own expense. Family members often participate in this emotional abuse, according to Khare. But it doesn’t always look the same.
“It can be extreme, where it comes down to, ‘If you get a divorce, you’re going to lose your whole family,’” she said. “And then there’s things that are a little more subtle. Like, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do? Is there any other way?’”
There are also family members who might support the divorce, but treat it like a “stain on the family,” she said, keeping it a secret from friends and relatives in an effort to uphold their reputation.
“‘We don’t want to break up a family,’” Khare said. “That’s fine, but now there’s a woman who’s dead. How is that not the ultimate breaking of a family?”
‘A male child can’t do any wrong’
Patriarchal systems create South Asian men who are raised to feel more valuable than women, said Neha Gill, executive director at South Asian survivors organization Apna Ghar. It starts from 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 has seen the impacts ripple through a community of women who resonated with her TikToks on a very personal level. In South Asian circles, she said, there’s interpersonal work to be done in bringing up men who hold themselves accountable.
“There shouldn’t be this inherent ‘boys are better’ thing” she said. “South Asians celebrate when they have a son. There are these underlying notions that persist. It doesn’t matter whether people have come to the U.S.”
When trying to leave her husband, the U.S. felt like an isolating place, the Marathi survivor said. The courts didn’t help, and she lost faith in 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 of these years, it has just been 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 it. It’s fine.”
It took all her strength to overcome generations of sexism that had been drilled into her from childhood, said the Punjabi survivor, but once she did, she realized the depth of unfairness in what is asked of South Asian women around the world.
“I was drowning,” she said. “And people didn’t want to help.”