So often these days we are exposed to the sophisticated integrated promotion of rags to riches stories, or the one about the person, who despite having all the odds stacked against them, succeeded beyond all imagination. Setbacks in life are the norm, not the exception, however today’s media has a way of sensationalizing most things beyond recognition, both positive and negative. The reason authenticity is so valued today is because it is so rare. Add in the tried and true rote national media and book tour, and one can be forgiven if you become somewhat cynical.
Walking over to the United Nations from our office on a warm June morning, much of this was on my mind. The reason being, Maria Toorpakai was to address the UN Women’s International Forum. For those of you who aren’t aware, Toorpakai is from South Waziristan, Pakistan, and chose to dress like a boy growing up in order to have the opportunities to compete in sports otherwise unavailable to her as a girl.
She was later essentially forced to abandon this effort upon discovery, after threats to her and her family by the Taliban. Later emigrating alone to Canada due to a chance email response from Jonathan Power to train with him, she has this spring written a book titled A Different Kind of Daughter.
As a consequence of her remarkable story and the book’s publication, she has received an incredible amount of coverage in the mainstream news media. More press in the United States than any other squash player, ever.
If I’m being perfectly honest, at times she has not presented her story all that well. The stories were incomplete, familiar memes seemed to appear here and there. I was concerned that the emerging face of squash may lack substance and instead be yet another product of the modern media machine.
I could not have been more wrong.
She quickly pulled the entire audience in with her easy, plain style of speaking. Her voice steady, she described her childhood, how her father educated her mother when they married, not something typically done in that part of the world. She talked about her longstanding dream to compete from a very young age, and said that she was blessed to not be raised as a girl. Early on, after observing the different opportunities boys had over girls, she thought “Being a girl is not right, you don’t want to be a girl” and her father embraced her thinking and mindset, and thereafter called her Genghis Khan.
Hers is not the story of a squash player, it’s the story of a woman, of a girl. She felt she had a right to play, something that is inarguably a human right. She noted that most women in our world have to struggle against society. Toorpakai has said that the prettiest burka or veil a father can give to his daughter is love. She said that girls need a proper platform and connection to the world, and deserve education and access to athletics. Perhaps taking a page from the UN’s HeForShe campaign, Toorpakai, responded to a question about the role men should play, saying, “The men should make a safer environment for women, so they feel comfortable, not humiliated or judged.”
Asked about the role of religion, she spoke as eloquently as any person I have ever heard, her voice finally flickering as she talked even more passionately on this subject than perhaps any other. She quoted the Koran which says, “There is no wise male like a female.” In the context of those men who choose to embrace Islam to an exaggerated degree, she said her perception is that “the easy way is to listen, the hard way is to search yourself for answers.” Her message to men, is “to trust their women.” In her view, “a woman’s purity is not the ultimate criteria, rather your soul should be pure, and that’s my protector.”
Through competition, she has discovered a productive way to use her immeasurable energy. She has created her own powerful platform. What the world perhaps needs most now, are women as courageous as Maria Toorpakai, and men like her father.
We should all be so determined in our love.