IT couldn’t have been more depressing and horrifying. She had become an online sensation after the rendition of her experience of a shady marriage and eventual release from it through divorce went viral on TikTok for the candor of raising an issue dear to many in South Asian communities. She was very open about what she had gone through and how she now felt liberated to regain her freedom and autonomy. As a Pakistani American and very familiar with the culture of her South Asian roots, she knew she wasn’t expected to talk openly about her experience, but she apparently wanted many women of similar cultural backgrounds to learn from her. According to her, in her culture, “women are expected to always be silent, …(and) it’s what keeps us in confused situations in the first place.” And for divorce – it should never be considered. It is a woman’s duty to maintain the family and a divorce would tear the family apart and only selfish women would want to do that. Not to mention presenting divorce as leading to a happier life like she did online. Because she had said, ‘Going through a divorce as a South Asian woman feels like you’ve failed at life sometimes… The way the community labels you, the lack of emotional support you get and the pressure to staying with someone, because ‘what will people say’ is isolating. It makes it harder for women to leave a marriage they shouldn’t have been in to begin with.”

So she divorced her husband and got the divorce proceedings completed despite pressure from her family against her decision and action. She was really trying to start a new chapter in her life, even though the process was heartbreaking, as she got her own place in Chicago, miles away from the man she described as “toxic.” She thought she had left all the pains of her dark marriage in the past with the new independent life and work as a photographer in a different location. She had defied culture and showed herself in the bright light she wanted for herself outside the stifling inhibitions of culture. But the culture wasn’t done with her yet. Her former husband, Raheel Ahmad, made the 11-hour drive from his Alpharetta, Georgia, home of Khan’s Chicago apartment, uninvited and unannounced. When his family found out he was missing from his home, they didn’t have to wonder too much where he could have gone when they asked for social assistance benefits at Khan’s apartment, where they thought he might be. . And when officials complied with the family’s request and decided to check her home, Chicago police officers found a 29-year-old woman and a 36-year-old man who did not respond, 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 Sania Khan and Raheel Ahmad. They regarded her death as murder and his as suicide. Ahmad had driven all the way there to kill Khan!

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The cultural story was that the man couldn’t stand it anymore and had to act to end the shame. “That she not only left him, but could survive and be happy and doing well, he couldn’t live with,” said one community member. Khan’s happiness outside of a toxic marriage was a disgrace to the toxic ex-husband. He did not expect Khan to survive the divorce or get along in a better frame of mind after going against the cultural precept to remain in the marriage, regardless of the excruciating circumstances experienced in it. Except that his action is proof that the cultural injunction could and could not be because of oppressed women’s interest in toxic relationships and marriages. The culture essentially takes care of the interests of the men in relationships and marriages and wants women to pay the price and sacrifice to keep men happy in all circumstances. Says RachnaKhare, the executive director of a survivors’ organization, Daya: “There is a stigma in our community that pressures women to make sacrifices, … to sacrifice their emotional and physical well-being for the well-being of others. And while we all want to be altruistic people, it’s an unnecessary burden on women.’ And she’s right: How can just one partner in a relationship be expected to carry the burden of sustaining the relationship in and through all the circumstances?

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Khan had to pay with her life because of this inappropriate cultural expectation and burden. And the whole crappy appreciation of the importance of keeping the family together, regardless of the reality of the relationships and circumstances in the family. Again, Khare states: ‘We don’t want to break up a family, … That’s fine, but now there’s a woman who is dead. How is that not the ultimate breaking of a family?’ How do we insist on keeping families under conditions that could lead to the death of the women in the families? What benefits does society gain when women who are pressured to stay in toxic relationships and marriages end up murdered? And what is the essence of culture in a context that leads to and leads to trauma and murder for women? Khan’s preventable murders and death should lead to a reconsideration in South Asian communities about the obvious limitations and danger of their cultural precept to keep families intact and together, away from divorce, even on the altar of abuse and misfortune of women in marriages. It is time to leave the province of the old reputation culture and give space for the expression of the true feelings and objective reality of those in the relationships and marriages.

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Marriages and relationships should fail or be perpetuated only on the true feelings of the participants and not on the cultural expectation of always being perpetuated by women, even with the fur of their own lives. The community has clearly let Khan down, and part of the compensation for this failure should be a willingness and affirmation not to allow this kind of heinous killing again by ensuring that the cultural precept prohibiting the acceptable repression of women into marriages is being reconsidered. In this way, Khan’s death might not have been in vain.

  • Yakubu is from the Department of Communication and Language Arts at the University of Ibadan.

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