She was from a small city in a southern state. Sania Khan, a Pakistani-American woman killed in a murder-suicide by her ex-husband Raheel Ahmad, had just moved to Chicago last year. Khan’s divorce from Ahmad was finalised in May of this year. On her TikTok profile Khan, herself a professional photographer, was documenting her journey healing from the painful divorce.
Apparently, her public statements about her relationship and the South Asian community’s response to it bothered Ahmad so much that he drove from Georgia where he lived all the way to Chicago. Then he went to Khan’s condominium and killed her. Ahmad appeared to have stayed in the condominium until he heard the police arrive. Officers at the scene reported hearing a gunshot and the sound of a man groaning. Inside, they found Khan’s body lying in the entrance; there was a gunshot wound to the back of her head. Ahmad was in another room with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Next to him was a suicide note.
There is no doubt that Sania Khan was living a complicated life. According to her TikTok posts, her mother had stayed in an abusive marriage because she feared backlash from the South Asian community in Tennessee. In other posts, Khan described the threats made to her by community members who opposed her divorce. In some videos, she spoke about the constant moral judgements by community members about anyone not following the rules of an obedient wife. Khan had decided to abandon all these strictures so she could wear what she wished and create a new identity for herself. Even though she had obtained a restraining order against her ex-husband, he was able to get to her and murder her.
Khan’s murder tells a sordid story of South Asian diaspora communities in the West. Chattanooga, where Khan grew up, is a small city: its chief tourist attraction is a park called Rock City that is full of strange rock formations. Pakistani diaspora communities in small places tend to be the most rigid. Since the number of families is not very large, everyone is stuck with everyone else. Even worse, like other diaspora communities, the morals and ethos tend to follow norms that are at least 20 years old when most families migrated to America.
Unlike actual Pakistani culture which has progressed in the past two decades, diaspora families are used to raising children according to dated norms and exerting judgement on any families that divert from them even a bit. Divorce is taboo so women have to choose between whether they want to end a bad marriage and face extreme ostracism and exclusion from the community or stay in the marriage and bear the abuse with community membership and support.
Khan had chosen divorce and rebellion. On her TikTok profile, she posted just the sort of risqué videos and photos that upset the self-styled guardians of morality in the diaspora Pakistani communities. She spoke openly about the depression that accompanies divorce and how hard it actually is to heal from it. It seemed that she had finally broken away from a relationship and a community that did not allow her to live the life she wanted. Working as a professional photographer doing shoots of weddings, graduations, marriage proposals and other happy occasions, she was supporting herself and realising her dreams as a newly single woman. All of it, visible on TikTok, seemingly enraged her ex-husband so much that he decided to kill her.
In the aftermath of Khan’s murder there has been a focus on the Pakistani community’s unwillingness to confront issues of abuse within their circles. Time magazine even chose to include “South-Asian communities engage in self-reflection” as part of the title of an article about the incident. The premise of it was that Pakistani communities promote a retrogressive version of marriage which demands that wives be subservient to their husbands and constantly at their beck and call. The insinuation is that Khan would still be alive today if the community was more supportive of women and less so of men like Ahmad who abuse and exploit women.
South Asian communities’ intransigence on the issue of divorce (which they bizarrely understand as a very American concept rather than a universal one) is undoubted. At the same time, it is true that Khan’s murder is also distinctly American. In the US, the likelihood of a woman being murdered is the highest after she leaves a relationship. Intimate partner violence of the sort that killed Khan is the number one cause of death in women under 35. Add to this the fact that one out of five American women report being victims of domestic violence.
If these numbers aren’t damning enough, there is the corollary issue of gun violence. The ease of procuring guns makes it very simple for would-be wife murderers to obtain lethal weapons for their nefarious plans. Perhaps if it were not so easy to obtain a weapon as it currently is in the US, Khan may have been alive today.
Femicide sadly is a universal phenomenon. Such is the hold of patriarchal norms that no one seems to know how to protect young women that leave abusive relationships. In the week since Khan’s murder there has already been at least one more murder-suicide in the US. This past weekend a soldier chased his wife into a mall where he killed her and then himself. It is entirely possible that by the time this article is published there will be even more. From all these examples and from Khan’s tragic death, it appears the world needs to focus on how to save women from bloodthirsty male egos which will stop at nothing to eliminate women who have dared to leave them.
This article first appeared in the Dawn.