Maria Toorpakai received death threats from the Taliban for playing sports, which it considers un-Islamic. Now she is determined to return to Pakistan and change their minds.
Maria Toorpakai was born in what is called “the most dangerous place on earth” — Waziristan, Pakistan
Long a stronghold for militant groups and warlords, including the Taliban, this remote tribal region is also one of the most conservative and uneducated parts of Pakistan.
But Toorpakai’s courage and determination to fight for social change in Waziristan has helped her to overcome numerous challenges and become something no woman there would ever be allowed to become — a squash champion.
Growing up in Waziristan, she had to pretend to be a boy to play the sport she loved, receiving death threats from the Taliban when her secret was exposed.
“I DRESSED AS A BOY SO I COULD PLAY SQUASH”
“Girls don’t have any rights. They cannot go out from their house, they cannot do what they want to do, they cannot play sports. They have to stay covered up, or they will be killed,” Toorpakai, now 22, recalled during an interview with MSN News from Toronto, where she moved two years ago to train under Canadian squash champion Jonathan Powers. “But I want to go back one day and change that.”
Even though she is more than 6,000 miles away from home, Toorpakai still talks about how she wants to go back to Waziristan one day and help girls who have no access to education and are often forced to join militant groups or engage in criminal activity.
Her introduction to squash, which would ultimately help her to get out of Waziristan, came through her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, an outspoken advocate of women’s rights in the Pashtuni community, a stance which landed him in prison.
Wazir had always believed his daughter was different.
“I was 4 when I realized that I didn’t want to sit at home and play with dolls,” Toorpakai said. “I wanted to go out and play sports. One day when my parents were away, I burned all my frocks, shaved my head and wore my brother’s clothes. I became a boy.”
This little act of rebellion led to Toorpakai’s father naming her Genghis Khan.
When she was 12, Toorpakai’s family moved from one city to another to escape the Taliban, finally settling in Peshawar, Pakistan, where her father enrolled her in weightlifting.
She went on to rank second in weightlifting in Pakistan in the junior division.
Soon after that, Toorpakai discovered squash.
THE NO. 1 PLAYER IN PAKISTAN
Within three years, Toorpakai went on to become Pakistan’s national champion and was ranked No. 3 in the world in the juniors division.
But she continued to live in fear of the Taliban.
Whenever she traveled for tournaments locally, she carried a gun and a cyanide pill in case she was kidnapped.
“People saw me on TV wearing shorts, playing sports and didn’t like it,” Toorpakai said. “They told me, ‘You are causing us dishonor.'”
“Think about what the Taliban did to Malala Yousafzai, and she just wanted to go to school, and she was in a veil … and I’m wearing shorts,” Toorpakai said.
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One day, her father received a note from the Taliban that said if his daughter continued to play squash, his family would be killed.
“I stopped playing in tournaments and appearing on TV,” Toorpakai said.
SNIPERS IN THE SQUASH COURT
Toorpakai’s plight was discussed in the Pakistani parliament. The government placed security checkpoints around her house and even provided snipers to protect her in the squash courts.
“I realized that it’s not possible being a girl and playing sports,” she said. “I was afraid that I would be kidnapped or killed. Every day, army officers and ministers are killed, and who am I? I would be easily killed.”
Toorpakai was also worried about the safety of the other children who played in the squash courts.
“I decided to play in my room. I didn’t want to be the reason behind someone’s death,” she said. “I believed in my squash. I kept hitting and hitting while everyone slept at night, until my hands were swollen.”
But the confinements of a small room became too much to bear, and Toorpakai started looking for a way out.
She sent hundreds of emails to universities and squash clubs explaining how it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to train in Pakistan.
“I offered my services as a part-time squash coach, but I had one condition — I wanted time for myself to train,” she said.
She didn’t hear back anything for three years, but then received an email from Powers.
“FIELD OF DREAMS”
“I couldn’t believe Jonathan Powers wanted me to train with him,” said Toorpakai, whose first squash racket had come inscribed with Powers’ signature.
“To me, it wasn’t that complicated,” Powers said. “I had grown up training with a famous Pakistani squash player’s family and knew how difficult life there could be. In Maria’s email, I saw a girl who wanted to follow her dreams.”
It took Powers eight months and a lot of convincing to get Toorpakai to move to Toronto.
When she finally arrived March 22, 2011, she was 20.
“She came here with a one-way ticket, 200 bucks in her pocket and a promise from me to train and become a world champion,” Powers said. “When I asked her if she was willing to remain in Canada until she became world champion, she replied, ‘Inshallah,’ meaning ‘God willing.'”
Powers said he opened the Power Squash Academy in Toronto to help inner-city kids who would never otherwise have access to squash.
“Squash in North America is a private club sport, and the doors are closed,” he said. “I wanted to integrate young people who didn’t have the means with top junior players from around the city. Kids can meet the best players in the world here. You can come here and play just for fun or if you want to train all day and become the best in the world, you can do so. It’s like a field of dreams.”
Powers said Toorpakai’s confidence has improved tremendously since she came to Canada.
“She’s doing great,” he said. “We play daily, and she’s absolutely phenomenal on the court — her raw ability to hit the ball was incredible, and I’ve been constantly working with her to improve it.”
Toorpakai is part of the high performance group in Powers’ academy that includes players from around the world. She is getting ready to head back to Pakistan for the Asian squash championships in May.
Once that is over, Toorpakai will be setting her sights on the world championship.
GOING BACK HOME
“There’s always a security concern, but the Pakistani Air Force will be bringing her back there, and they will have players from all over the world, so I’m hoping it will be safe,” Powers said.
“I am not frightened anymore,” Toorpakai said. “Maybe God chose me to bring change to my community. Once I am world champion, I want to go back and help the men, women and children who are living like refugees in their own country.”