In a mountainous land, where girls rarely leave their homes and sport is forbidden, a young child vows to follow her dream of becoming an athlete. To do so, she dresses as a boy.
The life of Maria Toorpakai, who overcame cultural restrictions to become an international squash player,
And now Toorpakai, from Waziristan, a tribal region of Pakistan, is indeed the star of a new film, one that has its UK premier at the Human Rights Watch film festival, beginning in London on 6 March.
“I want to tell girls, fear is taught; that you are born free and you are born brave,” says Toorpakai in the documentary, Girl Unbound, which charts the 26-year old’s journey from a homeland dubbed the most dangerous place on Earth due to its struggle with Islamist extremism, to represent Pakistan on the national team.
“Our culture is very rigid and very strict,” said Toorpakai. “It is very male dominated. Women don’t have a right to education and they don’t have a right to play sports.”
The best decision she ever made, she says, came at the age of four, when she burned her dresses, cut her hair and wore her brother’s clothes so that she could play outside.
“I was different,” said Toorpakai, who has four brothers and a sister. “I felt even stronger than my older brother. I saw young boys playing outside and it looked so much fun. So I began to dress as a boy.”
Her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, a tribal elder who is, unusually for Waziristan, a strong advocate for equal rights, recognised her strength and encouraged her in her first sport, weightlifting, disguised as a boy. Her sister, Ayesha Gulalai Wazir, is a politician in Pakistan and a member of the national assembly.
Her father nicknamed Toorpakai “Changez Khan”, after the Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan.
She then discovered she had a talent for squash. But, following a move to Peshawar, the local squash club asked for a birth certificate and she was exposed as a girl.
Toorpakai carried on competing. In Pakistan, squash is a popular game played by women and men, but not in conservative tribal areas. By the age of 16, when she won bronze at the world junior championships, her success was attracting unwelcome attention.
“It was a strange thing for people to accept a girl playing sport. I stuck out and people started noticing that. That’s when I understood that being a girl in a society like this is not easy.”
Her father received threats from his tribe back in Waziristan because his daughter was wearing shorts and not wearing a veil. They promised “dire consequences” if she did not give up sport because it was un-Islamic and against tribal traditions.
She was afraid, she said, not for herself, but for others on the court, thinking it would be blown up. Consequently, she spent several years at home, hitting squash balls against the wall.
It was a strange thing for people to accept a girl playing sport. I stuck out and people started noticing that
Eventually she began emailing squash clubs, academies and universities all over the world, asking for help. Her break came when, Jonathon Power, a Canadian former world No1, invited her to train in Canada. When Toorpakai turned 20, she joined the professional circuit in Canada. She is Pakistan’s top-ranked player – although she can no longer play there – and is 105th in the world standings.
Two months ago, Toorpaki moved back to Pakistan, a country that rates among the lowest in the world for gender equality. She hopes to inspire other young women there.
Maria Toorpakai left Pakistan at 20 to hone her squash skills in Canada. Photograph: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
“God blessed me with sports and through sports I learned a lot. For me, there was no other way. I was home schooled. I never had any degree or certificate. I wasn’t the type of girl that you say, ‘Give her in marriage’,” says Toorpakai, whose memoir, A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight, was published last year.
“Sport changed my life and I believe it is one of the things that connect us. Even over different continents and different nations.”