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Sania Khan’s Killing Sparks Conversations About the Stigma Around Divorce in South Asian Communities

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

In the months before being fatally shot by her estranged husband on Monday, Sania Khan was open on TikTok about the painful process of divorce as a 29-year-old Pakistani American woman. She spoke about pushback from her community and family members not just about her decision to leave her marriage, but also about sharing her experience so candidly. “Going through a divorce as a South Asian woman feels like you failed at life sometimes. 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,” Khan wrote in a TikTok posted in June. “It makes it harder for women to leave marriages that they shouldn’t have been in to begin with.”

Chicago police reported that they discovered an unresponsive 29-year-old woman and 36-year-old man at a home in the city’s Streeterville neighborhood around 4:30 p.m on Monday. Both had gunshot wounds to the head; the woman was pronounced dead on the scene while the man was transported to Northwestern Hospital where he was later pronounced dead. Law enforcement is still investigating the case, police said. The Cook County medical examiner’s office listed Khan’s death as a homicide and her estranged husband Raheel Ahmad’s death as a suicide.

Police in Alpharetta, Georgia said a relative of Ahmad contacted the agency to report him missing; the agency ended up contacting Chicago police to conduct a welfare check at the location, where he was later found.

The news of Khan’s death has prompted conversations among South Asians in the U.S. about the ways in which their communities often stigmatize leaving marriages—even dangerous ones. “In South Asian communities, there’s this concept of saving face and preserving family honor—not bringing shame to the family. Those things are prioritized over an individual’s safety,” says Neha Gill, executive director of Apna Ghar, a Chicago-based human rights organization that focuses on gender-based violence, particularly in South Asian communities in the U.S. Gill says that many of their clients face similar challenges when it comes to leaving their partners, because of the blowback they get from their own families and communities. “This is a community wide issue and the community definitely needs to be reflecting and looking at it in that way and not just saying: ‘Oh, that poor girl, or her family didn’t do this.’”

Khan was a first-generation child of Pakistani Muslim immigrants and a passionate about her job as a photographer; “my life truly began the day I purchased my first DSLR,” she wrote on her website. A Chattanooga, Tennessee native, she loved hiking. She moved to Chicago last June with her husband. She enjoyed traveling and used to work as a flight attendant.

Gabriella Bordó, one of Khan’s best friends, says she had just landed in Chicago and was riding the subway to Khan’s place when she found out the news. The two had just signed a lease together for a home in Chattanooga. Bordó had gotten Khan’s bedroom there ready for her arrival and flew to Chicago to help her finish packing. They had planned to have a night out in the city and then head down south in a U-haul. “Sania was in my future. I had at least the next few years, knowing that I wasn’t going to be alone and I was going to have my partner in crime next to me,” she says. She can’t imagine stepping foot in the Chattanooga house now, she adds.

Bordó loved how Khan would sometimes say “duuuude” and “bruuuuh” like a “total frat boy.” She would often FaceTime Khan after nights out. “Wherever my heart wanted to be—if I wanted to hike or kayak, she’s the friend who would say of course, let’s go. I’m the same way. We were that for each other.”

Sania Khan and Gabriella Bordó
Sania Khan and Gabriella Bordó pose for a shoot in Joshua Tree, California on March 25, 2022.Wandermoore Photos and Lily & Horns

Throughout their friendship, Khan spoke with Bordó about the same issues related to divorce and community acceptance that she would post on TikTok, she says. “[Khan] was encouraged to stay, pleaded with to stay, by her family and ex-husband’s family,” Bordó says. “I didn’t see someone as spirited as her being so manipulated or controlled by someone but she was. He monitored what she wore. He was wary about who she hung out with, how she presented herself.”

Dr. Samaiya Mushtaq, a psychiatrist based in Texas who has many South Asian clients and faced pushback from her community when she got divorced in 2016, says Khan’s death has been weighing on her since she read about it. In South Asian cultures, there’s often a tendency to be forced to just tolerate unhappy marriages, she says. “There’s this culturally laden idea that marriage is supposed to be the pinnacle of the next step of life… so leaving is seen as reneging on a commitment.” But divorce is often a natural and healthier ending for dysfunctional marriages, she adds.

“It’s really a beginning—of freedom and psychological safety and opportunity. It’s not a hopeless, sad, catastrophic event,” Mushtaq says. “I think it’s really a renewal for a lot of people … that’s what was robbed of her.”

Seeking divorce is also complicated by how patriarchal South Asian cultures can be, Mushtaq adds. “Part of the issue is the upbringing of sons; they’re seen as so desired, and so incapable of doing wrong, that they don’t learn accountability and consequences.”

For Khan’s close friends, she will always be remembered as a powerful source of inspiration and positivity. “She was liquid sunshine. She made me laugh,” says Jessica Henderson-Eubanks, one of her best friends. They met on Myspace in the mid-2000s and became close in 2019 after Khan asked Henderson-Eubanks and her husband to model for a shoot.

Sania Khan and Jessica Henderson-Eubanks at the latter's wedding in Joshua Tree, California on March 26, 2022.Casey Yoshida

“She was incredibly brave,” Henderson-Eubanks says about Khan’s decision to share her difficulties on social media. She was often a confidante for Khan over FaceTime. “I told her I would support her no matter what,” she says.

A month and a half ago, Khan forgot her evil eye bracelet at Henderson-Eubanks’ home. “She actually left stuff all the time at my house,” she says—so much that it became a running joke. Henderson-Eubanks says she will wear that bracelet everyday now.

Henderson-Eubanks would have been neighbors with Khan in her new home in Chattanooga, along with Bordó.

Khan was seriously considering getting a restraining order against her estranged husband and many of her friends encouraged her to seek one, they say. “She was leaving. They hadn’t lived together for a long time. She had a home here with me. I was there to bring her home. There was no reconciling,” Bordó says. “This man did not go there to salvage a marriage. He went there with a gun for a reason. He knew I was coming. My social media and hers is completely public. It was his last opportunity and he took it.”

Correction, July 25

The original version of this story misstated the year Dr. Samaiya Mushtaq got divorced. It was 2016, not 2013.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com