Life

Maria's sporting chance of freedom

Pakistan squash champion Maria Toorpakai disguised herself as a boy to pursue an outdoor life and sport she loved. She tells Hannah Stephenson how she dodged Taliban death threats, bombs and bullets on her road to freedom

Pakistan squash champion Maria Toorpakai

MOST girls born in South Waziristan, known by locals as 'the most dangerous place in the world', are destined for a life of hardship, arranged marriages and oppression.

In this tribal region of Pakistan bordering war-torn Afghanistan, women stay indoors, aren't allowed an education and are forbidden to do sports. They can't venture out unless clothed in a burqa and accompanied by a male relative.

"They send girls like me to the crazy house - or simply stone us to death," says Maria Toorpakai, who has faced Taliban threats and escaped bombs and bullets to seek the freedom she has always wanted.

Now 25, Maria is Pakistan's number one squash player and ranked 49th in the world. She lives in Toronto with three girl friends and hopes to one day be a Hollywood actress.

Yet she disguised herself as a boy for around 10 years to give her at least some of the freedoms we in the West take for granted. Her story is charted in her memoir A Different Kind Of Daughter.

Just before her fifth birthday, the feisty, headstrong child dumped all her stifling dresses, embroidered with beads and silk threads, into a cooking pit, dowsed them with kerosene and put a match to them.

Running back into the mud house which she and her family lived, she donned her brother's shirt and baggy trousers (shalwar kameez) and hacked off her long black hair with a sharp knife, adding the clumps to the flames.

From that point, with her liberal-minded father's consent, she became known as Genghis Khan.

"I started hanging out with boys, I could explore the area better than any girl could ever do. My sister was eight when she stopped going out, because that's the culture."

The family moved a lot when she was younger because of her father's outspoken pro-women's rights views, which met with disapproval from the tribal elders. He allowed his wife, a teacher, and daughters relative freedom and believed they should have a good education.

"Pretending to be a boy wasn't a pressure for my family until I was 12, when we moved to Peshawar," she recalls. "That's the age when being a girl is hard to disguise.

"My dad thought that making me become a girl in the local Islamic culture would destroy my personality and my health. He allowed me to keep going."

Channelling her energies into sport, she took up weightlifting, winning a boys' junior competition in Lahore.

Her real gender wasn't discovered until she decided to take up squash at around 15 and wanted to enrol with an academy at her local sports complex. For that, she had to present her birth certificate. She and her father decided there and then to come clean and, to their surprise, the academy accepted her and she became known as Maria.

Once her male opponents discovered her gender, they subjected her to a barrage of cruel taunts and lewd comments. But the scorn wasn't confined to the squash court.

"People who had been friendly before talked very disrespectfully to me. Shopkeepers wouldn't serve me. Even if I went out on my bike, people would kick me or whack me with sticks."

As Maria progressed in the game, turning professional in 2006, winning medals and trophies, so the Taliban increased its activities in Peshawar, blowing up schools, booby-trapping towns and targeting bazaars and crowds. Maria saw the devastation and death caused by suicide bombers and gun-toting extremists.

"Every day I would hear bomb blasts. It was not once a month, it was every day. Our home sometimes shook from the explosions. I saw people dying and bodies after a bomb went off in the market. The only thing that kept me going was that light at the end of the tunnel - I believed that by training, I would find a way out."

Fearing she was being watched by the Taliban, Maria started taking different routes to and from the squash academy, but that fear intensified when she became Pakistan national squash champion and her picture appeared in the papers, which further drew her to the attention of the extremists.

As a professional female sportsperson who played without a veil and in shorts, she and her family were threatened as her actions were perceived as "un-Islamic".

Her father received a note from the Taliban warning him that if he didn't stop Maria from playing, he would suffer severe consequences.

The squash academy also received threats, there were sightings of strange men hanging around and subsequently undercover officers were assigned to protect Maria.

Eventually, fear wore her down, which led to her being virtually confined to her home for around three years, self-training, hitting a squash ball against the brick walls inside.

"I was tired of this society. There was no ending," she recalls. She realised she would have to leave the country if she wanted to play.

For three and a half years, she 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, who had set up an academy in Toronto - and took her on.

Moving to Canada has changed her life, she reflects.

"It's improved my understanding of human beings. I'm from Waziristan, the most dangerous place on earth, known for terrorism. I come from the same tribe as most of the Taliban.

"I wondered if people would accept me, but they didn't ask me for anything, who I am or where I come from. They just accept me as their daughter, their family member. Their love has changed me."

In Waziristan, she was a tomboy, with dusty hair, no shoes on her feet, a slingshot around her neck.

"Now I have really good clothes, I eat with a fork - we eat with our hands in Waziristan - and when I go back, people think I'm a westerner.

"I had a lot to learn. I've become more girlie. I put on a little make-up if I'm going out and I have feminine clothes now too."

She returns to Pakistan frequently for squash tournaments, often staying in the capital Islamabad as it is considered safer, but visiting her family in Peshawar unannounced.

"There is always danger. My sister is in politics (she's a Pakistan parliamentarian) but she doesn't want security.

"It's much better at the moment over there. The Pakistani army are inside Waziristan and have been at war with the Taliban. In the last year and a half, I have seen a lot of change.

"Last time there was an attack on the Bacha Khan University close to Peshawar, the local people brought guns and started fighting the militants, alongside the army, so I think everyone is aware they should protect themselves."

Does she still fear for her own safety?

"If death comes, then it comes. That's how we live," she shrugs. "The fight is going on, but people are tired of war and are starting to understand the importance of education.

"Today, every girl should stand up, stay strong and ask for their rights."

:: A Different Kind Of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From The Taliban In Plain Sight by Maria Toorpakai, with Katharine Holstein, is published in hardback by Bluebird, priced £16.99. Available now

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