Sania Khan’s death is igniting talks about abuse in Asian communities

Sania Khan’s death has brought about discussions of abuse within marriage on social media. 

Trigger warning: this article involves discussion of domestic violence. 

“A divorced daughter is better than a dead one.” That’s the caption on an emotive TikTok produced by Annesa Tabassum, a Bangladeshi domestic violence survivor who’s shared her experiences on the app. The nurse, who moonlights as an influencer, is referring to the tragic death of Sania Khan, who was killed in what appears to be a murder-suicide, after she left her ex-husband due to abuse. 

Khan, a 29-year-old Pakistani American woman, was also open about her experiences of trying to leave an abusive marriage on TikTok. Like Tabassum, she found a supportive network in her TikTok audience.​​ She said in her clips: “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,” She added: “It makes it harder for women to leave marriages that they shouldn’t have been in to begin with.” A month later, she was shot in the head.

Khan’s case ignited an oft-neglected issue in South Asian communities: gendered-violence in the home. Chillingly, it’s something Khan herself referred to – the concept of ‘log kya kahenge’ – “what will people say?” – in response to actions not deemed traditional, such as leaving a partner, moving out of the home, or eschewing other cultural norms. Not only did Khan make the brave decision to leave her ex, she was also vocal about the process and the toxic environments that perpetuate the cycle of abuse. According to her best friend, whom Khan had planned to move in with it, her online candour made her a target.

Since the news of Khan’s death has reverberated around the community, many have openly slammed the social stigma of divorce among desi families, and how people are encouraged to endure pain instead of taking action against it. Others who had also separated from their partners or seen a loved one go through it, lamented the harsh reaction from the community, often towards the woman as opposed to the men who may be the abuser in the situation. As such, the divorced woman then becomes a burden on the family, something to be hidden and ashamed of.

Others can relate to Khan’s case. One person wrote on TikTok: “I broke off a two-year physically, mentally and emotionally abusive engagement. I have to hear “What will people say?” every day. It’s always the girl who’s thought to be in the wrong.”Some pointed out that the low rates of divorce among this group isn’t necessarily because of happy marriages, but due to cultural notions about leaving a spouse. “I grew up seeing countless aunties stay in loveless and extremely abusive relationships because of ‘cultural beliefs’,” wrote another. “Our community needs to change.”

Another woman who also experienced domestic abuse and left her husband after 25 years, found strength in Khan’s bravery and shared her story online. Not accustomed to sharing the intricacies of her life, she said she felt a duty to speak out, to dispel the myths and stigma that circulates around the community.She said: “When we make those choices, we shouldn’t be made to feel like we’re doing something wrong, that we’re being selfish, as if we’re damaging the family name. No one knows what goes on behind closed doors. And no woman should be made to feel shame for making that decision. Divorce has such a stigma in our community. It’s still seen as something that shouldn’t happen.”

Tabassum also raised an important reminder in her videos – that abusers and their families rely on the silence of women so they can act with impunity. In one video, she explains how she decided to go down to breakfast without covering her bruises with make-up, leaving her in-laws shocked. But instead of rushing to her defence, they were grateful for her silence and appreciative that she came from a Bangladeshi background, meaning she wouldn’t go to the police. Tabassum reported the abuse the following day. Since then, she’s successfully taken action against her ex. While Khan wasn’t that fortunate, here’s hoping many others will be saved from the same fate. 

If you’ve experienced any of the issues discussed in this article, or want to talk to someone about domestic violence, you can contact Aanchal, a safe place for South Asian women or the women’s aid charity Refuge. 

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