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Girls & Women

This Pakistani squash player won't let anything squash her dreams

Women in the World

Maria Toorpakay Wazir’s story will provide all the motivation you need to make your dreams come true.

It sounds loosely like the plot of a Game of Thrones episode; her story involves disguising herself as a boy, locking herself inside her house for years, and escaping death threats from the Pakistani Taliban, all so that she could achieve her goal of becoming a professional squash player.

She was born in a tribal region of Waziristan, Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The society she lived in was highly conservative, and the Taliban’s heavy presence in the area did her no favours. Girls weren’t allowed to get an education, or even to play outside. There would be celebrations if a family had a baby boy, but nobody wanted a daughter. Girls would sometimes be sold off to settle disputes.

However, as she said in an interview with Gillian Tett, managing editor of the Financial Times, Maria was fortunate enough to belong to a family that provided a “happy and just environment” at home.

Maria said her pro-women’s rights father has always supported her dreams. He educated Maria’s mother after marrying her. She also credits the fact that her sister is Pakistan’s youngest parliamentarian to the progressive upbringing their father provided them.

At the young age of four, Maria realised she was different. She found that she had no interest in the dolls that other girls would contentedly play with. She would much rather be playing outside with her brothers, running around, wrestling, and playing football.

Her desire to play outdoors was so strong that she tossed her clothes in the fire, chopped off her hair and put on her brother’s clothes.

A child with ferocious levels of energy, she would always be looking for challenges. It was due to her exuberant personality and love for sports that her family gave her the nickname Genghis Khan, after the famous Mongolian conqueror and emperor.

To channel this energy, her father enrolled her in weightlifting competitions as a boy under the name Genghis Khan. At age 12, she won a junior championship in Lahore.

But Maria soon became captivated with squash, and at her father’s encouragement, started playing the sport. “Squash gave me life,” she said in the interview.

However, when her father took her to a professional squash academy, she had to submit her birth certificate, and could no longer pretend to be a boy.

Playing as a female squash player led to her being bullied and harassed by not just the Taliban, but also people in society who thought it was improper for a girl to play a sport.

Despite receiving death threats from the Taliban, she continued playing squash and even won a few national tournaments.

“I don’t like giving up,” she said. “Life comes once and you have to take a risk. You die or you live, it’s up to god, but you just have to try your best.”

As she became more well known across the nation, the Pakistani army put snipers around squash courts to protect her from getting blown up.

She wasn’t scared for herself, but the Taliban had started threatening Maria’s family. Maria saw people die in bomb blasts and explosions, and she was scared for the people around her. She didn’t want to put them at risk.

Her father told her that to play squash, she would have to leave the country.

So, Maria locked herself inside her house for three years, emailing well-known squash personalities from different countries in the hope that someone would invite her to fulfil her dreams.

She was afraid that if she went outside, she would be killed. So, she practiced the sport inside her house on her own, without a coach or any professional help. “Squash was the only safe haven I could find for myself,” she said.

One day, retired Canadian squash champion Jonathon Power responded to her email, offering to bring her to Canada to train her.

Grateful, Maria accepted the opportunity to travel to Canada.

But, she had her reservations. She had heard stories of Islamophobia in Western countries and, hailing from an area so highly influenced by the Taliban, she was afraid that she would be arrested when she landed at the airport.

But her fears were unwarranted, as she soon discovered.

“People have treated [me] with kindness in Canada,” she said. Some community members even asked her if she wanted to go to a mosque and also gave her a Quran.

Maria Toorpakay Wazir’s incredible and inspiring story of crossing every obstacle hurled at her has resulted in her becoming one of the world’s best squash players. As of 2012, she was Pakistan’s top female squash player. In May 2016, at age 25, she became one of the 50 best female squash players in the world, holding the 56th rank.

After speaking at the Women in the World Summit this year, gaining more global recognition, she has become a role model for girls everywhere to pursue their dreams and overcome obstacles such as stereotypes or fear.

“I crossed the distance with sports,” she said.