Sania Khan was only 29, yet she left behind a multifaceted legacy. She was both compassionate and talented, beginning her career as a social worker and advocate for low-income families before becoming a flight attendant to support her flourishing photography career. She was also a fierce advocate for women’s rights, dedicated to eradicating divorce stigma and, according to a close friend, “liquid sunshine.”
The rich life Khan had ahead of her, however, was cut short on July 18, when she was fatally shot, allegedly by her ex-husband, 36-year-old Raheel Ahmad. Ahmad was also found dead at Khan’s Chicago apartment in what authorities deemed a homicide-suicide.
The news of Khan’s death sent shock waves through the South Asian diaspora and the community she built on TikTok, sparking conversations around divorce stigma and domestic violence in the culture.
In the months leading up to her death, Khan had become increasingly vocal on TikTok about the stigma she faced as a divorced South Asian woman. She recounted how family members and the community at large pushed back against her for wanting to leave a marriage that she called toxic — so much so that she considered getting a restraining order against Ahmad.
Khan’s advocacy and untimely death forces us to examine the ways in which the South Asian community has failed its divorced women, as well as those who endured unhealthy relationships, abuse and violence. Despite needing collective support the most, these people are often left vulnerable to not only their ex-partners and assailants, but also the Brown community at large and its judgments.
It was a “mentally draining” battle that Khan had to fight — one that she shouldn’t have fought alone. In fact, it appeared that Khan was trying to create a movement that could have helped save her.
“We need to step up and create a deeper sense of safety for survivors and for individuals who want to leave relationships,” said Kavita Mehra, executive director of Sakhi, a survivor-led South Asian community organization that uplifts survivors of gender-based violence.
Within our culture, shame is a particularly debilitating and persistent barrier in people’s attempts to leave relationships, Mehra noted. “Sania’s courageous spirit to find a life of safety, freedom and healing for herself was cut short because she didn’t have the right support from her community,” she said.
In a way, we failed Khan, too.
“Going through a divorce as a [South Asian] woman feels like you failed at life sometimes,” Khan said on TikTok. “The way the community labels you, the lack of emotional support you receive, and the pressure to stay with someone because ‘what will they say’ is isolating ... It makes it harder for women to leave marriages that shouldn’t have been in to begin with.”
“What will people say?” (I knew it as “log kya kahenge?” in Hindi) is a haunting phrase tossed around the community, one that attempts justify the status quo for the sake of superficiality, no matter how dangerous it might be.
It’s crucial to examine our political climate as well when it comes to how Khan was killed. “There isn’t adequate legislation around gun control, and these issues are intricately intertwined,” Mehra said. That, along with the recent Supreme Court ruling dismantling the right to abortion, paints a lurid picture for anyone who’s not a cishet white man ― one that devalues livelihoods by eroding women’s access to the care, support and safety they need.
It’s this lethal environment of culture and country that uniquely plagues the South Asian diaspora with gender-based violence. One in every four women in the U.S. faces gender-based violence in the course of their life. That statistic, according to Mehra, is higher among South Asian women, which stands at two out of every five women.
“What we have is a silent public health emergency that’s woven into the South Asian experience,” she said. “It’s translated from our countries of origin, through our families, into the diaspora — and it’s intermixing with our hybrid identities.”
And for Khan, the child of Pakistani immigrants, that trauma may have been intergenerational. Her mother divorced her father and similarly faced backlash from the community, as Khan revealed in another TikTok.
There are ways we can move forward, Mehra said. First and foremost, we need to collectively work as a culture to foster a safe space for Brown people who choose to leave unhealthy relationships. “It’s not just the responsibility of community-based organizations to do that — the community needs to embody that ethos,” she said. “No one should ever have to live with someone who’s inflicting harm on their life.”
And while it’s important to recognize that Khan’s killing is a harsh wake-up call, it’s not an isolated event, Mehra noted, referencing the heinous 2020 killing of restaurant owner Garima Kothari, which received little media attention.
Above all, the community at large must contend with this systemically rooted culture of shame, one that created the conditions that would rob Khan and her inner child of the peace and life she deserved.
“Sometimes when I’m sad I think about how proud my younger self would be of the woman I’ve become,” Khan wrote in a post. “I followed my dreams to be a photographer, am the most confident I’ve ever been, and chose myself over any man.”