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Sania Khan and Sadia Manzoor are examples of how the justice system fails women

The Pakistani-Americans paid the ultimate price for a system that fails to protect women by jailing their abusers.
Published 14 Sep, 2022 11:53am

December 7, 2021 — the date is forever cemented in Shazia Khan’s mind. On this day her son-in-law Raheel Ahmad tried to kill himself and her daughter, Sania Khan, by jumping from the window of the couple’s 28th floor apartment. Sania, and Raheel’s mother managed to stop his six-foot frame from going out of the window, with Raheel’s mother getting injured in the process.

On July 18, 2022, Raheel tried to kill Sania and himself once again. This time he succeeded.

At the time of her death, Sania was separated from Raheel and living in a different state. According to friends and family, after months of sleepless nights and a lot of tears, Sania was feeling free and happy. Her photography business was booming and Sania had become an accidental influencer after her TikTok talking about the stigma around divorce went viral. The day Raheel drove nine hours with a gun to Sania’s apartment where he killed them both, Sania had been in the middle of packing up her place with plans to move back to Chattanooga, Tennessee where she’d grown up.

In the last four months, Sania Khan is the second Pakistani-American woman killed by an angry ex. Earlier this year, Sadia Manzoor, her four-year-old daughter and her mother were murdered by Sadia’s ex-husband in Houston, Texas.

In the interest of full disclosure while maintaining the utmost respect for attorney-client privilege which survives a client’s death, I was part of the legal team that worked on Sadia Manzoor’s divorce and based my conversations with Sadia Manzoor and Sania Khan’s mother and friends, I can tell you that both cases have some disturbing similarities.

Both Sania and Sadia married men who weren’t initially physically violent but, right from the get-go, displayed unstable, toxic behaviour. In both cases, there was a large amount of financial and emotional control. Both men knew when it was time to be charming, productive members of society. Both men knew their mental health was deteriorating yet refused to commit to consistent medical care. Ultimately, both men could not accept that theirs was a bad marriage and that their ex-spouses were entitled to divorce them and live their own lives.

In America, guns have more rights than women

When a man murders his spouse, that’s a case. But when hundreds of thousands of men do it, it’s an epidemic. In Pakistan, where domestic abuse is largely treated as a private dispute, statistics are unreliable because of underreporting. In the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women will experience some form of domestic violence in her life. And, if the abuser has access to a gun — which is frighteningly easy in the United States because of its lax, outdated gun laws — he is five times more likely to kill his victim.

As one abuse survivor recently told me, in America, men and their guns have more rights than abused women.

The most important thing to understand is that there is no pattern or predictability to domestic abuse. Things can quickly escalate into a life or death situation, which means that everyone involved — from law enforcement to family courts — must get it right, every single time. This starts with understanding what domestic abuse is and is not.

Domestic abuse is not a personal matter to be privately settled between the woman and her abuser. It’s a deeply rooted social issue that societies — particularly ones that place a premium on upholding a patriarchal worldview — both perpetuate and try to hide.

Domestic abuse is not just a problem for the uneducated or the poor. Both Sania Khan and Sadia Manzoor were strong, educated women who had publicly called out their abusers’ controlling and toxic behaviours.

Lastly, domestic abuse is not just cuts or bruises that you can see.

Domestic abuse includes neglect, threats, withholding food or medicine, financial control, sexual humiliation and sexual abuse. Domestic abuse is feelings of entrapment and powerlessness resulting in the humiliating, intimidating, exploiting, isolating and dominating of one’s romantic partner. Domestic abuse is a global health crisis and human rights issue.

To quote writer Jess Hill, “it’s not the monster lurking in the dark women should fear, but the men they fall in love with”.

A marriage gone wrong

To the world, Sania and Raheel were the quintessential power couple. Sania, beautiful and creative, ran a successful wedding photography business. Raheel, tall, dark and handsome, was studying to become a doctor.

“He was always very respectful,” recalls Sania’s mom, Shazia Khan.

“He became a part of our family even before the marriage. We did not see a single thing wrong with him during this time. Even after they got married, [it wasn’t obvious to us right away] that they had a bad marriage. Sania’s siblings are still stunned. They ask me, ‘mom, how can someone have fooled us for so long?’”

According to Sania’s mother, after just six months of marriage, Raheel’s mental health deteriorated dramatically.

In an exclusive interview — her first since her daughter’s tragic death — Shazia tells Images that after his suicide attempt in December 2021, Raheel was admitted to the hospital for three weeks where he was diagnosed with bipolar depression and released with the understanding that he would commit to medication and therapy.

According to Sania’s mother, during Raheel’s time in the hospital, Sania missed him terribly.

“She would visit the places they went together and just cry. But she was angry inside because during this time he confessed to some things that made her very unhappy. She learned he hadn’t been faithful. She was very angry and very hurt. The tears wouldn’t stop but Sania loved him,” says Shazia.

 Sania Khan with her mother Shazia Khan
Sania Khan with her mother Shazia Khan

After Raheel was released from the hospital, Sania threw herself into taking care of him. She cooked his favourite foods and took the bus with him to his therapy appointments. Even though Shazia was scared for her daughter, Raheel convinced her that he would never hurt Sania.

“I bluntly asked him: what if you do this again? What if you manage to hurt Sania this time? He would repeatedly say to me, ‘Aunty, I promise I am not pagal [crazy]. This happened [to me] because I hadn’t slept for three to four nights and was experiencing psychosis, but I promise’,” Shazia recalls Raheel telling her.

Shortly after coming home, Raheel dropped out of therapy. When Sania suggested they attend marital counselling Raheel said they didn’t need it. Sania’s mother and friends who spoke to Images say during this time in the relationship Sania could no longer pretend that the red flags she’d been sensing were minor speed bumps on the path to marital bliss.

“She would call and say she was no longer comfortable living with [Raheel] and how they didn’t have kids yet and how she [should] think with her head not her heart,” says Shazia.

Approximately 20 days after Raheel tried to kill himself and Sania, the couple separated. The transition from married to separated was not an easy one for Sania.

“I spoke with Sania two to three times before [she made the] decision. I helped solidify her decision,” says Zeeshan, one of Sania’s childhood best friends.

During this time, Sania began documenting the end of her marriage on TikTok. Her posts, some of which featured a teary eyed Sania, candidly talk about the stigma surrounding divorce in South Asian communities. In some posts Sania calls out family for not supporting her. But when followers leave comments asking whether Sania’s mother supports her decision to get a divorce, she responds that yes, her mother 100% supports her decision to get divorced.

When I asked Shazia why Sania might have felt unsupported during this time, Shazia tells me that because Sania had seen her go through a divorce, she feared the pushback and comments from her community and extended family.

“She was very cognisant of the stigma. She feared the reaction of the extended family because she was moving back home. She had this thing in her mind that when I move back there’ll be backlash,” recalls Shazia, who says she doesn’t know exactly which one of her family members made Sania feel like she couldn’t get a divorce and return to her mother’s home.

“My only disagreements [with Sania were over] how she dressed and her being so public on social media. Sania once told me she didn’t like that one of her friends had gone through a divorce publicly on social media. I think [ultimately] her friends had a big role in her becoming so public about things because they were also influencers. She was hurting and she became a little rebellious. After [her TikToks became viral], she began to tell me she was really making an impact. She was excited for her voice to be heard. But our fear was that this would trigger [Raheel]. Even Sania’s brother talked to her and said, ‘what if Raheel sees this and goes crazy?’”

According to Shazia, when Sania told Raheel she was filing for divorce, he screamed and cried. Then, he disappeared, blocking Sania everywhere except for email. According to Sania’s childhood best friend, Zeeshan, just days before Raheel showed up in Chicago and killed Sania, she had written him an email asking what she should do with his clothes. He never replied.

“Sania was not a stupid girl. She was prepared. She knew [Raheel] could be dangerous. She would never have opened the door if she knew he was outside. I have messages where, after the initial separation, Sania tells me she feels scared when talking to him. She wanted to get a restraining order against him but didn’t want it to affect his [medical] career. But, she was scared that he knew where she lived and where she went to do her photo-editing,” recalls Shazia.

Throughout our conversations, Shazia’s grief is palpable and constant. Sania was her eldest. A golden child who grew up to be a kind soul. Shazia shares screenshots with me of her and Sania’s conversations. Repeatedly, Sania thanks her mother for her support through the divorce. Repeatedly, the two tell each other how much they love one another.

For Sania’s family, the immediate backlash they have faced has been as painful as losing Sania.

While researching this story, many of Sania’s friends, who had known her for years, contacted me to voice their frustrations with influencers who’d briefly interacted with Sania online and who were now claiming that she was dead because of lack of family support. The false allegations spread by these influencers have been like adding kindling to an already emotionally charged conversation. Some on social media have gone as far as demonising Sania’s mother by portraying her as a selfish mother who didn’t want her daughter to get divorced with some going so far as accusing Shazia of not supporting a GoFundMe set up to cover Sania’s funeral costs.

Shazia, who tells me of influencers live-streaming her daughter’s funeral without the family’s consent with one influencer going so far as climbing into the grave while recording, says she hasn’t seen a penny from any fundraiser in her daughter’s name.

“People — even Pakistani celebrities — were posting on social media that ‘a divorced daughter is better than a dead daughter’. Samina Peerzada tweeted ‘Save your daughters… let them come home and live’. These posts hurt me so much,” says Shazia, pointing out that Sania had been packing up to move back to her hometown when she was killed.

“When Sania’s sister saw these posts she called me crying and said ‘mom, these people are not even letting us grieve?’ So many of these so-called friends are trying to defame the family for their personal gain, for followers, for likes. They are cashing out on Sania’s death which is very painful for us,” says Shazia. “We want to request people not to believe any negativity spread by these few girls,” urges the grieving mother.

“People keep saying ‘poor Sania, her family didn’t support her’. They’re making it sound like Sania killed herself. No one is saying ‘what did Raheel’s family do?’ They could have prevented this. We hadn’t seen or talked to Raheel in months but they saw him everyday. They used to say Sania was like their daughter. Where was their khayal [care] for Sania at the end? Why weren’t they checking to see if their son was taking his medication? Why didn’t they alert us when they noticed he was missing? Why was he allowed to have a gun?”

Where do we go from here?

Who comes to mind when you think of a woman who is mentally or physically tortured by her partner?

You might imagine someone uneducated, docile and incapable of standing up for herself. Perhaps, you picture someone from a poor neighbourhood where violence is both common and ignored by the community (like the mohalla in Netflix’s latest Alia Bhatt-starrer Darlings).

The reality of domestic violence victims is that there is no one type of woman who is more or less susceptible to abuse by her partner. Very often, my clients are educated, confident and modern women from affluent backgrounds.

For some women, an abusive marriage will become a permanent, routine part of life. Many will spend decades in violent marriages, leaving once their children have grown up and are out of the house. And for some women, like Sania Khan and Sadia Manzoor, the abuse may initially come as a shock but, in the long run, it will not subdue or silence them.

Yes, both women were scared of the men they’d once so happily married. That’s because they knew better than anyone what these men were capable of. And even though both women did everything “right” — such as getting separated, filing for divorce, seeking protective orders, and changing their locks — ultimately, a broken justice system and a patriarchal culture that still refuses to believe and protect women failed these women.

Perhaps, losing control over their ex-wives is what pushed these already unstable men over the edge of a cliff they’d been teetering on for so long. After all, abusers need dominance and power to keep doing what they do. For men who harbour the patriarchal view that a woman is their property, a woman’s decision to leave is both a personal insult and a matter of great shame. In fact, studies show that women are 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving a relationship than at any other time in a relationship.

The desi women who come to my law office are frequently shocked at how little protection American courts offer battered spouses. These women walk into my office under the impression that the United States is an idealised, evolved nation with a zero-tolerance policy towards domestic abuse.

The reality is that American women are very much under attack in this country. The Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe vs Wade and the subsequent eradication of women’s right to bodily autonomy is one example. The fact that approximately three American women are killed every day by their spouses, ex-spouses or ex-boyfriends is another example. .

Interestingly enough, both the United States and Pakistan have some of the world’s most robust and progressive domestic violence laws.

In 1994, the United States’ Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), recognising domestic violence as a national crime. Two years later, Congress passed the Gun Control Act, which made it illegal for abusers to possess a gun. A conviction under both these acts is a felony. Additionally, every state comes with its own set of laws to protect abuse victims.

In Pakistan, each province, except for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has its own set of legal statutes that tackle domestic violence. These laws are mostly similar in content and function. Additionally, in 2020, the National Assembly introduced the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, which, along with abused women, includes protection for children, elders and the rather broad catch-all category of “any vulnerable persons”.

This bill is fantastic in its wording. For instance, it has an expansive definition of domestic violence which includes ‘physical, emotional, psychological, sexual and economic abuse’. It also criminalises certain actions like repeated instances of possessiveness and jealousy, an invasion of privacy or liberty, threatening divorce or a second marriage, and stalking and harassment. A conviction under this bill is punishable by jail time anywhere from six months to three years and fines.

Unfortunately, robust laws that take up space in legal tomes, and protection orders, restraining orders and court orders (such as no-contact orders and firearm restriction orders) do nothing to guarantee an abuse victim’s safety.

Sania Khan and Sadia Manzoor’s cases are proof that divorce decrees and protection orders are mere pieces of paper that don’t do much besides identifying the abuser and instructing them to have no physical or verbal contact with the victim. Indeed, studies show that there is typically a 20% escalation in an abuser’s violent behaviour after a protective order is issued against them.

What does guarantee the safety of an abused woman is putting her abuser in jail. Yet, less than 2% of abusers will ever receive jail time.

Rage and revelation

Similar to Noor Mukadam’s murder last year, Sania Khan and Sadia Manzoor’s deaths have brought out rage and revelation for the South Asian diaspora.

Where we once might have been reluctant talking about abusive relationships and problematic patriarchy around the dinner table, we are now increasingly finding ourselves having these difficult yet necessary conversations.

The public’s response to these killings shows that we are ready to make huge changes. What that change will look like is unclear right now but, as a lawyer working in the system, I can say with certainty that laws alone won’t end domestic violence. Only changing mindsets will.