- Sania Khan’s death was widely discussed on social media and in national news outlets.
- But domestic violence is not new to South Asian women. Many seldom report it.
- Khan’s death spread like wildfire because she was relatable, domestic violence experts told Insider.
News of Sania Khan’s death spread like wildfire in the days after police discovered her lifeless body in her Chicago apartment.
On social media platforms, South Asian women who never knew Khan paid tribute to her — a 29-year-old photographer from Tennessee who last month had been shot dead by her ex-husband. Pakistani celebrities spoke out. And domestic violence organizations catering specifically to South Asian communities released statements expressing sorrow.
Khan’s story hit home for many within the South Asian community because domestic violence can be an everyday occurrence, according to experts.
For instance, in the US one in every four women will experience gender-based violence. But “for the South-Asian diaspora in the United States, the statistic is two in every five women,” said Kavita Mehra, executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, a New York-based nonprofit that provides services and resources to women affected by violence.
“So what we know is that our community is seeing higher rates of violence, and that women in our community are experiencing higher rates of violence than the national average,” Mehra told Insider.
The stigma of domestic violence in South Asian communities
But domestic violence is so stigmatized within the community that South Asian women rarely talk about or report it. Many aren’t even aware that they might be experiencing it in the first place.
The term “domestic violence” is oftentimes hard to grasp for South Asian women in the Boston area, for example, according to Divya Chaturvedi and Renu Tewarie, co-executive directors of Saheli Boston.
“Many times we have to ask questions like, ‘Did he slap you? Did he pinch you? Did he put hands on your neck?’” Tewarie told Insider, detailing some of the interactions she and Chaturvedi have with women who call in to the center. “So they don’t even know what abuse is because it’s very normal for them.”
It’s even harder to understand when domestic violence presents itself in a less tangible form, experts told Insider. Verbal abuse, for example, is still domestic violence, Tewarie and Chaturvedi said, but it might not leave visible marks on or changes to the body.
But South Asian communities largely value the nuclear family and binary gender roles, they said, so there’s a lot of shame associated with identifying and speaking out against any kind of violence within the home or an intimate relationship, experts told Insider.
Sometimes, for instance, women call in on the helpline and tell Tewarie and Chaturvedi of the abuse they’re facing at home. But when Tewarie and Chaturvedi start talking to them about their options and resources, the women reject the suggestions because they worry about being seen as an outcast in their community.
“Shame can serve as a social handcuff from a survivor coming forward, because there is such a deep amount of shame that is projected onto a survivor, shame of the family, shame of community, and not being able to have a safe space to be able to share their experiences,” Mehra told Insider.
The other social handcuff can be duty to the family and to familial matters.
The belief that a woman has a duty to one’s family “will then often force survivors to live in a place of fear and harm and trauma, when those are just social indicators that really prevent a survivor from coming forward,” Mehra said.
That’s partly why Khan’s case struck a chord with the South Asian community, women who run domestic violence shelters told Insider.
Khan, a Pakistani American woman, publicized intimate details of her divorce from Ahmed on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, where she had upwards of 22,000 followers.
“Going through a divorce as a South Asian Woman feels like you failed at life sometimes,” she wrote in one video. “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. It makes it harder for women to leave marriages that they shouldn’t have been in to begin with.”
To her fans, Khan came across as relatable, experts say
She amassed followers through her honest portrayal of her experience as a South Asian woman dealing with divorce and other stigmatized issues.
“People gravitated toward her messaging because she was so vulnerable and courageous,” Mehra said.
It was also her reputation that helped propel her message and her public image to the top. Speaking with Insider, friends described her as a warm person with infectiously positive energy. She constantly championed her friends and encouraged them to go after what they wanted. She made people believe in themselves, and she took strides to make her own life as exciting as it could be.
“She’s so relatable in the sense that so many women are going through some of those questions, or the lack of support, or questioning the relationship, or they are not happy,” Chaturvedi said. “She became the voice for those women in documenting her struggles, what she was going through.”
“It’s hard when you see this person with so much potential, right?” Chaturvedi added. “This young person with so much potential and her level of compassion and what she was doing, and to have that snatched away with the senseless violence, it leaves a hole in your heart.”
It’s not just her fans or friends who had been mesmerized by her presence. When she died, media orgs all over the country latched on to tell her story.
But, according to South Asian women who run domestic violence centers all over the country, Khan’s case is not out of the ordinary — despite the media attention and reaction it’s received.
Domestic violence is rampant among the South Asian community, and Khan happened to stumble upon the spotlight because she’s relatable and leveraged social media smartly. But plenty of women have suffered the same fate without generating the same media attention or public interest.
In 2020, for example, chef and restaurant owner Garima Kothari was killed by her boyfriend in Jersey City. Her boyfriend had killed himself afterward. Unlike Khan, however, Kothari did not get national media attention when she died.
And just days after Khan died, YouTuber Dana Alotaibi was killed by her ex-husband on the side of a road in Hawaii. Her ex-husband, a Marine, then tried to kill himself.