Warning: This report contains details that may be considered shocking.
After emerging from an abusive marriage, Sania Khan said some members of her Muslim community in South Asia made her feel “a failure in life”. But she found support and comfort in Strangers on TikTok — until her exhusband came back to murder her.
Their bags were packed. And she was ready to be free.
On July 21, Sania Khan, then 29, would leave Chicago, Illinois — and the trauma of a failed relationship — to start a new chapter alone in her hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
But that day she returned to Tennessee, lifeless.
Three days earlier, officers found Khan near the front door of the Chicago apartment complex where she lived with her exhusband Raheel Ahmad, 36. She sustained a gunshot wound to the back of the head and was pronounced dead at the scene.
When police arrived, Ahmad pointed the gun at himself and fired, killing himself.
According to police reports provided by police to the Chicago SunTimes, the couple was “in the process of a divorce” and Ahmad, who had moved out of state during the breakup, traveled about 700 miles back to his old home for the marriage “.
The gruesome murdersuicide was the tragic final chapter in the life of Khan, a young PakistaniAmerican photographer who was recently recognized by the TikTok platform as a voice for women dealing with the trauma of marriage and the stigma of marital divorce struggling community south asia.
Her death has shaken her friends and has resonated with her online followers and other South Asian women, who say they feel pressure to remain in unhealthy relationships to keep up appearances.
“I help people fall in love”
“She said her 29th birthday was her year and a fresh start,” says BriAnna Williams, her friend from college. “She was very excited.”
For her friends, Khan was a joy authentic, positive and overly generous.
“He was someone who would give you the shirt he was wearing,” says Mehru Sheikh, 31, who Khan called her best friend.
“Even in difficult circumstances, she was the first to call and ask how you were.”
On Instagram, where she built her first public platform, Khan described her passion for photography on her profile: “I help people fall in love with themselves and with each other in front of the camera.”
Khan photographed weddings, newborns, baby showers and other events, often for large clients but also for many of his friends.
2 of 3 Sania Khan loved taking photos — Photo: SANIA KHAN/via BBC
Sania Khan loved to take pictures — Photo: SANIA KHAN/via BBC
“She came to life behind the camera,” says Sheikh. “She had a gift for making people feel comfortable in front of the camera to capture joy and natural emotions.”
At the same time, she sought the same kind of joy in her own personal life. After dating Ahmad for about five years, Khan married in June 2021 and they moved to Chicago together.
“They had a big, fabulous Pakistani wedding,” recalled a childhood friend. “But the marriage was built on a foundation of lies and manipulation.”
Khan’s friends claim Ahmad has had mental health problems for a long time. The couple spent most of their courtship in a longdistance relationship before getting married. The friends say the distance likely masked the extent of the couple’s incompatibility.
Problems came to a head in December when Khan told a friend that Ahmad was having a mental health crisis and that she felt insecure.
The BBC could not reach Ahmad’s family. Relatives, through Khan’s friends, stated that they would not comment on this story.
About a dozen murdersuicides occur every week in the United States. And about twothirds of them involve intimate partners, according to the US Violence Policy Center.
Mental illness and relationship problems are often identified as major risk factors for women to be abused by their partner. Domestic violence experts say women are at greater risk of being killed by intimate partners if they leave the relationship.
The December episode convinced Khan who had kept the details of their relationship a secret until then to open up about their unhappy marriage, according to friends.
They said Khan discussed the difficulties of their marriage, saying her husband didn’t sleep and often acted strangely that he didn’t heed her requests to seek help or therapy and that she felt that her mental health issues overwhelmed her.
3 of 3 Sania Khan enjoyed spending time with her friends — Photo: SANIA KHAN/via BBC
Sania Khan enjoyed spending time with her friends — Photo: SANIA KHAN/via BBC
Khan’s friends say other people have advised her to stay despite telling her to leave the marriage.
BriAnna Williams, 26, says her old friend broke down in tears when they last met in Chicago in May.
“She told me that divorce was a shame and that she was extremely lonely,” Williams told the BBC, recalling Khan using the phrase “What are people going to say?”
Khan, herself the daughter of a divorced couple, claimed to have witnessed firsthand the stigma some South Asian communities place on women who leave their marriages.
“There’s a lot of cultural pressure on the affected family and their impression on the outside world,” says Neha Gill, executive director of Apna Ghar, a Chicagobased organization that provides culturally sensitive services primarily to South Asian women affected by abuse and intimate partners .
Many communities in South Asia continue to believe that women are inferior and need to be controlled, according to Gill: “Cultures are very communal, so it’s about prioritizing family or community over the safety and wellbeing of others. One person.”
But with the support of her friends, Khan filed for divorce and set up a hearing to finalize the split in August. According to her friends, she also applied for a restraining order and changed the locks on the doors.
And he started sharing his story on TikTok, billing himself as the “black sheep” of his community. One post said: “A South Asian woman going through a divorce sometimes feels like a failure in life.”
“My family members told me that if I left my husband I would leave shaytan [o diabo, em árabe] ‘win’ me dress like a whore and when i go back to my hometown they will kill each other,” read another post.
Another college friend, 28yearold Naty, vividly recalls the first time Khan went viral on the platform. Naty requests that her last name not be published.
“She was loud on the phone and said her mission was to talk about the relationship and guide women out of their toxic marriages,” says Naty.
In every post, Khan found strength and comfort, even as she “received backlash” for publicizing the end of their marriage, she said.
When Khan died, over 20,000 people followed her on TikTok. Bisma Parvez, a 35yearold PakistaniAmerican Muslim woman, was one of them.
“I remember it, [depois do] The first video I saw of her, I just prayed for her,” says Parvez. “Women in such situations hear that they need ‘sabr’. [paciência, em árabe] and in an abusive relationship, patience is not the answer.”
She mourned Khan’s death in a video of her own on TikTok one of many shared on the platform.
Since then, the conversation has only widened. Apna Ghar, the Chicago domestic violence organization, plans to host a virtual panel discussion to mark a month after Khan’s death.
And amid outbursts of love from her friends and social media followers, Khan’s former high school classmates at the Chattanooga School of Arts and Sciences have established a scholarship in her memory.
“It’s everyone’s secret, but social media helps to recognize that this is a global problem,” says Parvez.
“We always tell women to protect themselves, but it’s also important to raise children to respect women. This training starts at home and every home needs to make this change.”
This text was originally published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/geral62489880