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The Stigma of Divorce in South Asian Communities

... and how it impacts those living in abusive marriages.

Key points

  • The recent death of Sania Khan case has spurred discussion about intimate partner violence and divorce among South Asians across the globe.
  • The topic of intimate partner violence (IPV) for South Asians is a layered one, given the underlying pressures in the community.
  • There is often considerable guilt placed on women’s shoulders around keeping a marriage together.
  • Divorce can be ego crushing for a South Asian family, given the collectivist nature of the diaspora.

“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 a marriage that they shouldn’t have been in to begin with.” —Sania Khan, Pakistani American photographer

The recent death of Sania Khan, a 29-year-old Pakistani American photographer who was murdered by her ex-husband, has spurred a lot of discussion about intimate partner violence and divorce in the South Asian community.

Prior to her death, Sania had been sharing her journey of healing from her difficult marriage on TikTok. Sadly, not only did she deal with the impact of trauma from her relationship, but she also faced pressures from her family to stay in the marriage, with some relatives even threatening suicide.

Yet even amidst all of this, Sania persevered and forged a path ahead, inspiring many viewers with her story in the process. According to reports, Sania was about to embark on a new chapter in her life—a move to Tennessee with her best friend—before she was fatally shot in her apartment by her ex-husband, who took his own life when police arrived.

Understanding Domestic Violence in the South Asian Community

For South Asians, the topic of domestic violence—and specifically intimate partner violence (IPV)—is a layered one, given the underlying pressures inherent in the community.

In general, IPV occurs in a cyclic pattern. During the cycle, there is a tension-building phase where the survivor walks on eggshells, fearful of what is to come. This is followed by a crisis phase of violence, which tends to worsen over time. Finally is the calm phase of remorse, where the perpetrator often apologizes profusely and promises to change and get help. Yet after the promises have faded, the cycle often begins again. It can go on indefinitely for years.

It is the last phase that can feed into the tendency among many South Asian communities to "let things go" and "not stir the pot." For South Asian women, in particular, this notion can be difficult to get past.

“Going through a divorce as a South Asian woman feels like you failed at life sometimes." —Sania Khan

In South Asian culture, marriage tends to be seen as a status symbol. The wedding day is considered a celebration and a mark of a girl becoming an adult. While many South Asian women do thrive in their marriages, many do not. This may be due to an unspoken tolerance for suffering, and a culture where divorce is often viewed as a failure. While this is finally beginning to change as more women are speaking up, these deep-rooted sentiments still remain.

There is considerable guilt placed on women’s shoulders around keeping a marriage together. Women often feel defective if they cannot manage their marital issues. There is also the persistent view that women can handle more than men in terms of hardships, sacrifice, and emotional turmoil, and so have a responsibility as the “fairer” sex. Being able to weather such storms is considered the mark of a good daughter-in-law.

In some cases, women from South Asian countries are married to men from other nations, including the United States. In more benign cases, young women may face incompatibilities with their partners that naturally need to be sorted out. Yet there are times when they arrive to live with a partner who is emotionally unavailable, controlling, or abusive.

An extreme case is a bait-and-switch where they think they are marrying their husband but find that his family, particularly his parents, controls the home situation. Sometimes, in-laws may even encourage their son to control his new wife with violence or by being abusive themselves. In addition, some immigrant women may be financially dependent on their husband due to their visa status, which may also be exploited by the husband or his parents.

One study conducted by Anita Raj and Jay Silverman tracked the experiences of 169 South Asian women in Boston. The researchers found that 6 percent reported emotional abuse by in-laws and that this was significantly higher in those relationships with partner violence than those who denied any violence in their relationship.

In one story, published by the Advancing Justice—Asian Law Caucus, a young Pakistani wife “Z” arrived to live with her husband in California, but never actually saw him. Instead, she was forced to be the servant of his parents and had to work all day, while being emotionally and physically abused by her mother-in-law. Meanwhile, her husband was living his own life with his girlfriend.

“Women are always expected to stay silent… it's what keeps us in messed-up situations in the first place.” —Sania Khan

Silence is considered a virtue to maintain the status quo. While “Z” was able to escape and get her divorce, it was not without significant fears and anxiety about how she would be perceived by her family in Pakistan. Sania Khan also shared the backlash she had received.

Divorce can be ego-crushing for a South Asian family, as it may be viewed as selfish or self-serving and seen as going against the grain of collectivism. In collectivist thinking, the individual ego is subservient to the greater good. Although this has both socio-political and spiritual merit, taken too far, it can create an internal conflict and an ongoing dismissal of the self in service of others. Boundaries are blurred—and given the patriarchal underpinnings of South Asian culture, women are often the ones to experience the fallout.

There are certain intergenerational scripts that are passed down that influence patterns of behavior. Children are generally raised to please their parents and make them proud, not only by their achievements but also by settling down with the “right” partner and having a family. There is usually no discussion with girls about navigating relationships or sex. Often young men receive messages about career success and learn very little about being a husband or partner.

If boys are raised in a family where the father was abusive, they may continue this pattern of dominance and control. The idea of divorce may leave them feeling emasculated or thwarted, a narcissistic wound of sorts. Dysfunction in the family is generally ignored or swept under the rug.

Some of my clients have shared how the values of respecting parents’ wishes and making them proud can be a slippery slope. Some admit to wishing that their parents had separated due to the tumultuous nature of their relationships, but never did given the stigma. Clients talk of how the trauma of this impacts them as adults to this day. Their parents’ refusal to seek help or divorce sent them a clear message: forbearance at all costs.

The psychological trauma of IPV coupled with the fears of societal backlash can take a toll. Symptoms can manifest both physically and emotionally as anxiety, depression, loss of appetite, sleep disorders, withdrawal, lowered self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness, and suicidal ideation. There is also the very real fear of being attacked by the perpetrator.

It is important to recognize all of these issues when working to help someone in these circumstances. Fortunately, there are more South Asian agencies such as Manavi, Saakhi, Maitri, Asha, Apna Ghar, and many more that are available across the country and well-equipped to help survivors process trauma and normalize divorce as a viable option. It is important to note that while there are several South Asian organizations across the country accessible to those in need, women do not always seek help given their fear of backlash among other things.

Sania Khan was a brave young woman who was a freedom fighter in her own way. While her life was cut short, her courage and powerful convictions can live on as a beacon of hope for other women in similar circumstances.

“Sometimes when I’m sad I think about how proud my younger self would be of the woman I’ve become… I followed my dreams to be a photographer, I am the most confident I’ve ever been, and chose myself over any man.” —Sania Khan


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