Maria Toorpakai: Pakistani squash player who defied the Taliban

In a telling tale of courage and resolve, a young girl from the northwestern region of Pakistan braved through primitive, cultural, and social barriers to become one of the most renowned figures of the region. Maria Toorpakai grew up in Waziristan, hitherto the hotbed of terrorist activities and termed one of the “most dangerous places on earth”. Home to the Taliban, it is a place where girls are often deprived of schooling, where extremists denounce women’s sports for being un-Islamic. “I could feel that girls enslaved are not equally treated as boys,” Toorpakai said.

Toorpakai’s father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, is a tribal elder and comes from a large, prominent political family in South Waziristan. Maria says her father has always been a strong advocate for equal rights and opportunities for women. “My father is really progressive,” Toorpakai says. “He raised my brothers and us equally, as sons and daughters come from the same womb. He educated my mum, supported my sister to become the prominent Pakistani politician she is today and helped me to become a professional squash player,” she added.

Maria had a very different childhood than all the other girls. When she was four years old, she decided to do away with all her girly clothes, cut her hair and dressed like her brothers to maintain her freedom. “My father started laughing and said: ‘From now on your name is Changez Khan’,” she said.

Upon noticing Maria’s determination, her father looked for a way to channel her energy in a positive way and believed sports would be an effective outlet. Being “one of the strongest boys of her village,” Toorpakai took up weightlifting. After two months she participated in a boys’ championship as Changez Khan and beat the males in her category.

But during her time off from weightlifting, Toorpakai would sneak into the nearby squash courts and watch people play. She immediately fell in love with the sport and her decision was made: She wanted to play squash.

Happy with her decision, her father signed Toorpakai up for the PAF squash academy. She was initially introduced as Changez Khan. But when the director required a birth certificate to grant admission, Toorpakai’s identity had to be revealed. She performed well in international tournaments, winning the bronze medal in the world junior championships at 16. She was ranked third in the world in the under-19 category and had entered the top 80 in the senior ranking.

She received many awards, including one from former President Pervez Musharraf. The victories put her in the limelight and gave her a lot of media attention. But fighting for a high position in squash became a real battle. When people in the academy found out about her true identity, years of bullying started.

Toorpakai’s success also drew the attention of the Taliban, and she received death threats for playing without a veil and wearing shorts. “There was a time when I could not even go outside at all,” she recalls. “For more than three years, I could only train in my own room.” “All I could think of was playing squash. I worked very hard and trained for almost 10 hours every day. Squash is very close to my heart, my soul. It became a matter of survival for me,” she adds.

“I started emailing squash clubs, academies, schools and universities in the Western world, asking for help to become a world champion. I needed to find a way to train with peace in mind,” she said. For almost four years, she wrote thousands of emails and received no response.

Then, in 2011, came an unexpected reply from a former world champion, Jonathan Power. Having moved into coaching, he invited Toorpakai to train in Canada at his academy. “When I got his message I was just so happy. I couldn’t believe it,” she says.

Today, Toorpakai plays championship-level squash in Toronto and is ranked in the top 50. Her goal is to get to the top 10 and eventually become the world No 1.

This article originally appeared on CNN.

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