Maria Toorpakai – From a girl to a boy and back to a girl again

Maria Toorpakai: born in the conservative area of South Waziristan, Fata; currently ranked No. 1 in Pakistan and 62nd in the world; recently defeated World Number 34, South Africa’s Siyoli Waters, to lift the trophy at the second Bahria Town International Women’s Squash Championship; the third title of her WSA career after she won the Southwest Squash Open, the Liberty Bell Open in the US and became the winner to the first ever women’s event in the Nash Cup in Canada. To top it all up, Maria’s accomplishments are all an outcome of her persistence and courage to continue approaching her destination with constant confidence and passion in spite of the societal restrictions that were imposed on her because of the narrow-mindedness of the society she was living in.

Born in South Waziristan along the Afghan border, Maria’s birthplace was a place of Islamic extremists. A place where even the birth of a girl is not appreciated; they are deprived of education, let alone participation in sports. Maria grew up differently from other girls. This is a story of a girl who would not have had the opportunity to go out of her house after the age of eight, but is now on her way to be the top-ranked squash player in the world.

Maybe what Maria is today would not have been possible without the immense help and encouragement of her father: he was a descendant of the same narrow-minded and fanatic people of Waziristan, but had a different approach. He was a real man, the real protector of his female family members: he voiced the rights of women; he believed women and men are created equal. Shams-ul-Qayyum was declared a mentally ill person and after several attempts on his life, he had to leave his home’s luxury and live far off. Before that, he was married to the daughter of a rival political family of his: Yasrab Nayab. The greatest example of his persistence in his beliefs was the fact that he gave full freedom to his wife in the matter of wearing the burqa and continuing her education. Shams-ul-Qayyum’s different thinking was primarily the reason he turned into a ‘un-Islamic’ man for the illiterate people of his region. Shams had high hopes for both his 4 sons and 2 daughters, in spite of having limited financial resources.

Once his daughters were old enough, Shams started to put his dreams to life. He shifted to a town where good educational facilities were available and his wife and daughters began studying. Shams took on the role of being the supervisor of his daughters in the matter of studying. He enlightened them with religious beliefs and practices along with the school education. Maria’s elder sister, Ayesha, was fond of studying. But Maria was a bit different from her elder sister. She preferred to go out rather than staying inside the house and learning. Once at the tender age of 4 when her parents were out, Maria burnt all her girly dresses, cut her hair short and put on her brother’s clothes. When her father returned he was amused by Maria’s acts and gave her the title of “Chinghez Khan”. This was when Maria’s journey to becoming equal of the opposite gender began. She began hanging out with her brothers and other boys, adopting everything a boy could do: she became the fifth son of the family.

Her disguise as boy was such that she was not even recognized by the people that she was actually a girl. When Maria became 12, her father directed her towards sports, particularly in weight lifting. As her father was a bit shy in disclosing the actual truth of her being a girl, he told everyone that she was his son and her name was Genghis Khan.

Disguised as a boy meant Maria could take part in any tournament she wanted.
“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”, Maria’s father said.

And so her journey began. Maria admitted that she immediately fell in love with the game as soon as she saw others playing it. Shams-ul-Qayyum took Maria to a squash academy run by Pakistan Air Force. In the initial stages of her playing squash, people were unaware that she was actually a girl. When the truth spilled, she was made subject to extreme bullying; taunting, disrespectful behavior all by her fellow players.

But giving up was not in her blood.
“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 bore sweet fruit. She won several junior championships and turned into a professional player in 2006. Maria also had the honor to be the recipient of an award by the Pakistani president the following year. But her achievements, instead of bringing pride to her conservative tribe, brought trouble. Her father was chastised heavily for her participation in sports.

A letter was pinned to the window of Shams-ul-Qayyum’s car telling him to stop his daughter from playing squash because it was “un-Islamic and against tribal traditions”.

“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. So she started playing in her own 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 after a long wait of three and a half years, Maria Toorpakai was invited to Toronto to be trained by the Canadian squash legend Jonathon Power.

Her father could not be more proud, now. Maria herself says: “I think people are tired of so much war and fighting and bombs and kidnapping, I think they want peace and they realize 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.”

Razzan Sehar 
Angels International College

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