Article and Images courtesy of BBC News
by Bethan Jinkinson
Maria Toorpakai Wazir is a star squash player with a promising international career. Born in Waziristan, a highly conservative region of Pakistan, she had to disguise herself as a boy when she took up the sport – and later received ominous threats for playing in shorts.
“I am a warrior, I was born a warrior, I will die like a warrior.”
Maria Toorpakai is courageous – and she’s had to be, to play squash in a region where many girls are even denied an education.
When she was four, she put on her brother’s clothes, cut her hair and took all her girly clothes outside and had them burnt.
“My father started laughing and said, ‘Here we go, we have a Genghis Khan in the family, ‘” she says, referring to the Mongolian warlord of the 12th Century.
As she grew older, Toorpakai was often involved in fights. She says it was how she made friends. “My hands, elbows, knees were always bleeding – my eyebrows and face were always swollen.”
So 10 years ago, when she was 12, her father decided to channel her energies towards sport – in particular, weightlifting.
“He was a bit shy to tell people that I was a girl, so he said, ‘That’s my son and his name is Genghis Khan, ‘” Toorpakai says.
After a couple of months, she was entered for a boy’s tournament – and won.
“Giving her a false boy’s name allowed her to take part in whatever games she wanted, ” says Toorpakai’s father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir.
“Then someone told me that if she carried on weightlifting, she would not grow taller, and she would become plump and heavy. So I encouraged the interest she had already discovered in playing squash.”
Squash is a popular sport in Pakistan and the country has produced many world champions. Women play it too – although not in Waziristan or other highly conservative tribal areas.
Toorpakai says she fell in love with the game the first time she saw people playing it.
“I just liked how the kids had so much determination, the beautiful rackets and balls, and the kit, ” she says.
Her father took her to a squash academy in Peshawar run by the Pakistani air force.
In the first month or two of playing squash, people didn’t know she was a girl. When the truth came out, other players started taunting her.
“They used to tease me, use bad language. It was unbearable and disrespectful – extreme bullying.”
She didn’t give up. She locked herself in the squash court and played for hours, from morning to evening.
“My hands were swollen, bruised and bleeding, but I still kept playing. I locked myself away, trying to create my own shots, my own drills.”
The hard work paid off. She won several national junior championships and turned professional in 2006. The following year she received an award from the Pakistani president.
But the extra attention brought trouble to the family.
“In our area, girls are not even allowed to leave their family homes, ” explains her father.
“They wear a veil all the time and are always accompanied by male family members. When people saw Maria and realised that she did not wear a veil and that she played squash wearing shorts, they were shocked. They said she had brought dishonour to our tribe and they criticised me heavily for it.”
A letter was pinned to the window of Wazir’s car telling him to stop his daughter from playing squash because it was “un-Islamic and against tribal traditions”.
It threatened “dire consequences” if he did not act.
But he maintained that if his daughters wanted to pursue a career in sport, he would support them.
The Pakistani squash federation provided Toorpakai with security, setting up a checkpoint next to her house. Snipers were positioning around the squash court, but she decided things had gone too far.
“A [modern] squash court has so much glass in it, so if there was a bomb blast inside, it would kill so many innocent people, ” she says.
Instead she started practising in her room.
“Playing in the hard surface of my room caused me many painful injuries. My father when he saw this spirit in me said, ‘If you want to play squash, then the only option you have is to leave the country.'”
So every day, for three and a half years, Toorpakai sent emails to clubs, academies, schools, colleges and universities in the West – everywhere she could find squash courts. By the time she was 18, she had sent thousands.
One of her emails reached Canadian squash legend Jonathon Power. His signature was emblazoned on the first proper squash racket Toorpakai had owned, given to her by the director of the Peshawar squash academy.
Power had recently retired from the professional squash circuit and had set up a squash academy in Toronto.
“It was pretty peculiar, ” he says.
“I got this email from this young girl, saying where she came from, that she was just trying to pursue her dreams and become the best player she could be.”
Power had spent a lot of time playing in Pakistan, and been heavily influenced by Pakistani squash players. But he also knew the difficulties faced by girls and women in the country.
“I just couldn’t understand that there was a girl from this part of the world that was a squash player, ” he says.
But Power discovered that in 2009 she had come third in the World Junior Women’s Championship. He was startled that Waziristan had produced a female squash player.
“I thought, ‘Wow that’s an incredible achievement.’ So I thought I had to find a way to help her out.”
He replied saying he would like to teach her squash in Canada.
At first, Toorpakai couldn’t quite believe he was the real Jonathon Power. Several months later, in 2011, she arrived in Toronto and started training with him.
She is currently Pakistan’s top female player and ranked the 49th best woman in the world. Power is convinced that she will go far.
“She absolutely has the talent and determination to become the best player in the world, ” he says.
“It’s going to take time – she did have four years where she didn’t get to progress, playing in her room.
“But now she’s in a great environment, she’s got great people around her helping her physically and learning the game of squash on a tactical level.”
As for Toorpakai’s father, he couldn’t be prouder. “Pakistan and the whole Muslim world should be proud of her, ” he says.
“In our society people celebrate when a boy is born and they are aggrieved when a girl is born – this attitude must change. I want every tribal girl to have the same chances as other girls.”
Toorpakai herself credits squash with giving her the opportunity to live a different life.
“I think people are tired of so much war and fighting and bombs and kidnapping, I think they want peace and they realise now that they need education.
“They are very shy. They need someone to represent them, someone who can raise the voice for them and I think we are the people and we will bring change to them.”