Maria Toorpakai: Pakistani squash player who defied the Taliban

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Squash's female freedom fighter
02:24 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

From conservative tribal area of Pakistan

Disguised herself as a boy to pursue sports

She started out as a weightlifter

Now Pakistan's No. 1 female squash player

CNN  — 

Maria Toorpakai grew up in Waziristan, which she calls one of the “most dangerous places on earth.”

Home to the Taliban, it is a place where girls often don’t go to school and extremists denounce women’s sports for being un-Islamic.

“I could feel that girls are not equally treated as boys. They are enslaved,” Toorpakai, who left Pakistan for a new life in Canada, tells CNN.

Her childhood was different from that of other girls. She wanted to prove that women could do anything. When she was four years old, she decided to burn all her girly clothes, cut her hair and dress like her brothers to maintain her freedom.

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‘Changez Khan’

“My father started laughing and said: ‘From now on your name is Changez Khan,’” the 25-year-old says, referring to Genghis Khan, one of the greatest warriors in history.

Toorpakai’s father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, is a tribal elder and comes from a large, prominent political family in South Waziristan.

Although he belongs to an extremely conservative tribal society, his daughter says he 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.”

When the family moved to the Peshawar area, her father noticed his daughter’s determined nature as she got into one fight after another with boys in the neighborhood. He 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 breaks from weightlifting, Toorpakai would sneak into the nearby squash courts and watch people play. She immediately fell in love with the outfits, the rackets and the thrill of chasing after the ball. Her decision was made: She wanted to play squash.

In the spotlight

Squash is the second biggest sport in Pakistan. Many of its biggest names – such as multiple world champion Jahangir Khan – are from the Peshawar area.

Happy with her decision, her father signed Toorpakai up for the PAF squash academy. Again, 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 when 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 spotlight and gave her a lot of media attention.

A life indoors

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 – especially from boys unhappy to be beaten by her.

Toorpakai’s success also drew 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.

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“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.”

Determination prevails

For almost four years, she wrote thousands of emails, between 85-90 a day, and received no response.

Then, in 2011, came an unexpected reply from a former world champion.

In 1999, Jonathon Power had reached the No. 1 ranking – the first North American squash player to do so.

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.

She hopes to empower the disadvantaged and war-affected populations of the world, especially women, young girls and boys, giving them opportunities to access the highest levels of education and sports.

In order to realize these goals, Toorpakai created the Maria Toorpakai Fund – encouraging women, young girls and boys to reach their full potential.

“I want peace in the world. I want people to unite themselves against terrorism,” says Toorpakai, whose story is documented in her memoir “A Different Kind Of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight.”

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Female squash player fights for freedom
03:11 - Source: CNN