After spending 16 years of her life pretending to be a boy, she now flies back and forth between the two countries trying to inspire and help girls pursue their dreams
In the midst of all the negativity and misery around the world, if you look hard enough, there will always be that one story that will make you smile, give you hope and inspire you as well.
This is the story of the amazing and fearless Maria Toorpakai who went against the Taliban and even some cultural restraints to pursue her dream.
She hails from an area in Waziristan where girls are not allowed to take part in sports and are discouraged from even leaving their homes.
Nothing less than a movie script, at the age of 4 she burnt her dresses, cut her hair and started wearing her brother’s clothes so she could play outside without being told off.
“I was different, and felt stronger than my older brother. I saw young boys playing outside and it looked so much fun. So I started dressing up as a boy.”
Her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, a strong advocate for equal rights encouraged her and helped her pursue her first sport, weightlifting. He thought it would be beneficial for her to vent her negativity and frustration this way.
He then nicknamed, or rather gave his ‘son’ the name Genghis Khan.
Maria trained and competed as a boy and at the age of 12, became Number 2 in Junior Division in weightlifting, Pakistan. Yes, she beat all the other boys at their own game.
She managed to keep her clothes on and gender hidden at mandatory weigh-ins because her brother also refused to take his clothes off and created a ‘protective precedent.’
That is when she developed an interest in squash and became good enough to be accepted in an academy in Peshawar run by the Pakistani Air Force.
“Squash gave me life.”
For many months she continued to play as a boy, but then the director of the academy asked to see her birth certificate. Having no choice but to comply, her secret was outed.
The director, also a progressive thinking individual like her father, asked her to stay on. However, everyone else’s behavior towards her changed.
“I was harassed, it was unbelievable. They used bad language towards me.”
The same players, boys and men who had accepted her as a peer, now bullied her.
Even the community gave her a lot of resistance. But her supportive father kept saying even when out and about:
“Don’t look at people. Just walk and stay focused. And these are just people. They will just walk by your life. You would reach your destiny.”
So, she did not give up and continued to play. In 2006, she turned professional and her profile as an athlete grew. She even got the Salaam Pakistan Award from the then President Pervez Musharaf. In 2009, she was nominated for the Best Player of the Year Award by the World Squash Federation.
Her name was now known. She was in the news. As a result, her family started getting threats from the Taliban, their main focus being on her clothing and wearing no veil. They even left threats pinned on her father’s car. This was two years before Malala was shot.
It became so dangerous that the Pakistani government placed snipers around the squash courts where she played matches and even at her home.
Eventually, the fear that because of her, someone else would get hurt and seeing how it had given her mother depression, she retreated to her home. For three and a half years she practiced squash hitting balls against her wall for hours every day. She also started writing emails, thousands in number, to squash players, clubs, academies, universities around the world in hope that someone would be able to help.
One man replied in 2011.
Jonathan Power, a retired squash champion offered to be her trainer in his academy in Canada.
“I just couldn’t understand that there was a girl from this part of the world that was a squash player.”
Grateful and excited, she grasped the opportunity and moved to Canada.
At age 20, she joined the professional circuit there. She is currently Pakistan’s top ranked player and World ranked 60. (May 2016)
To date, she also has a memoir to her name, A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight and a documentary, The War to be Her.
The girl who spent 16 years of her life pretending to be a boy, now flies back and forth between the two countries trying to inspire and help girls pursue their dreams.
Her extremely proud father continues to say, if given the right opportunities, “There could be a thousand Marias”.
“An eagle knows his true ability that can touch & limit the skies and fly the highest but its human who describe him to the limits of his sight…”
Originally published on The Nation