When Maria Toorpakai first picked up a squash racket, she was around 12 years old. She’d been dressing as a boy for a while – partly because it felt natural to her, and partly because it allowed her rights that were denied to girls where she grew up, in a Taliban-held tribal region of Pakistan called Waziristan. As a boy, Maria was able to play sports, and quickly rose to the top of her game as a junior squash player, winning in the final at international tournaments.
When Maria was eventually found out – as a female playing in male competitions – the story made headline news in Pakistan, and her family began to receive death threats from the Taliban, who believed her competing in the tournaments as a young woman went against Islam. In order to stay safe, she was confined to her home until, eventually, she fled to Canada to take up squash again, and retrain for competitions. Her family still receive threats today.
Having recently written a memoir about her experience, A Different Kind of Daughter, Maria is also the subject of a new documentary called Girl Unbound: The War to Be Her, which has its UK premiere next week at London’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. A sensitive portrayal of family life under the Taliban regime, it follows Maria through her training for a new world championship tournament, the work she does back in Pakistan to teach other young girls sports, and her coming to terms with her gender identity.
Below, we had a chat with the unstoppable athlete about determination, overcoming fear and the future of Pakistan under the Taliban.
Hi Maria. So to start with, how did you first become interested in squash?
I used to get into fights as a kid, getting bullied, things like that. So my father thought to put me in weightlifting classes. I played the weightlifting championship in Lahore and I got a position in that, but I came back and I kind of didn’t feel any more competition, and squash was right beside the weightlifting room at the gym. I got to see the squash courts and I told my dad, “I want to play this sport, it looks more exciting and fun.”
And at that time you were about 12, correct? And you were living part of the time wearing boys’ clothes and under a boy’s name?
Yeah, I’ve preferred that since my childhood. I remember when I was about 5 years old, I didn’t like to wear girly dresses or have a ponytail. I could see my brother was playing outside with boys and they had different clothes and haircuts and they were playing marbles and running after kites. I always wanted to do those kinds of things, but I felt that I was sticking out differently to the boys – you have to wear the same kind of clothes because otherwise you don’t feel welcome.
So, I decided to look more like my brother, then I could play those games and sports. Nobody could understand it. I told my dad, “I want clothes like my brother, I want a haircut like my brother” and he didn’t understand. Then, one day when my parents were out of the house, I took all my clothes into the backyard and I burned them. Since then my father named me Genghis Khan – like a boy’s name.
In Pakistan, where your family are from, what were the limitations on girls playing sports?
Well, Pakistan has been affected with terrorism for a while now. Where I come from is still under the Taliban. Sports inside Pakistan are really affected, but it isn’t only about girls doing sports – it’s anyone going to schools, universities or government jobs the Taliban are against. When I was growing up, militants would bomb the government, they would kidnap deans of the universities, they would attack police officers. They were against artists, people who are singers, who are actors, and sports people – particularly women in sports. They were against all that because they thought it was un-Islamic.
What happened when you were caught out for playing? You received threats?
In 2007, when I got recognised for my achievements, terrorism was at a peak – it was bomb-blasting every day, and kidnapping was happening every day. I performed really well internationally and I came back and President Musharraf gave me many awards and it was big in the news, that a girl from Waziristan was playing sports and performing well on a world level. That was when I started to get threats.
First, it was a letter [attached] to my dad’s car wiper, and we weren’t sure it was real – but then we started receiving phone calls and my dad realised it was.
He asked me if I wanted to keep playing or if I wanted to stop. I thought it would be stupid to keep playing – this was years before Malala was shot – but things like that were happening all the time. I didn’t tell anyone I’d stopped, but after some time, the Pakistan Squash Federation asked me why I wasn’t playing and the Air Marshal called me and I had to tell him. Once I told him, he got really upset and he told everyone, then I saw in the evening on television “Maria had threats”, and then in parliament they were discussing my issue. I was banging my head like, “What is happening”. Everyone knew. After that I had to hide. For three years I couldn’t do anything.
What made you start playing again?
I kept playing through that time – I was playing in my room, I just kept hitting. I didn’t grow up to not do things, I was very free hanging outside, but this was a time when I couldn’t do anything. I felt squash was something that made me happy and I had one vision – I could imagine myself on the podium, winning, or playing on the grass squash courts. That vision kept me going as I kept playing against my bedroom wall. I came back to it properly when I left the country to go to Canada, which is in the film.
What do you think are the qualities that make you a great squash player? How much is training and how much natural?
I think I have the quality to be in the top 10, to win the world championship. I think I have really good racket skills, and the only thing I’m lacking in is that I have a lot of injuries; I have struggled with my body a lot. I think it was because of all the pressure from back home, it affects your health, the stress. Even now, for one year, I’ve been out of playing, but the injury is healing. I played another tournament recently which I performed okay in, but it was not the best. I’m looking forward to playing the World Championship in December in Manchester. That’s what I need to train for in the next few months.
Are you living back in Pakistan now? Are your family still under threat?
I moved back to Pakistan, yes. We still get threats and we’re getting them from Afghanistan now, actually. We all live through that. My dad has a phone that has auto-recording and whenever we get a threat he gives it to the police intelligence department. But the thing is, no one can do anything – you have to protect yourself in the country. That’s how it works. I come from Pashtun tribe, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are taught from a young age that, no matter what, you never leave the Pashtun ground.
What we believe, I think, is that if they threaten, they threaten. We are very careful about our movement – where we go, what we do – but yes, still we believe that you cannot stop life, you have to keep moving with it and you have to take risks and again, if it happens, it will happen, that’s how it goes. But we don’t want to stop our fight to do things that we want to do.
What are your hopes for the younger generation of girls in Pakistan, both in sport and in politics and education?
There is always a struggle. It’s a little bit easier in the cities than in Peshawar. When I was growing up in the tribal regions the mentality was very rigid. And it still needs a little bit more time to change that. My sister is in politics, so she is asking the government to merge these tribal regions into one province, and if it’s done, I think people will learn how to follow the laws. Then we can give them opportunities like sports, or education so they can learn how to survive, and how to assimilate themselves with the world.
I can see that process happening. For a year and a half, the army has been oppressing the militants in my village, Waziristan, and that actually made it quite peaceful for a while. During this time, there were more girls playing sports. And it’s amazing actually, the parents told me that when I won those tournaments in Pakistan they were really happy, and they wanted their daughters to be like me. That’s why they want them to play squash. I went back and I trained them, I gave them tips and things like that.
Pakistan is a very colourful country – you can’t paint this country in one colour, you cannot paint it in black and white. We have very progressive people in the cities – if you go to Islamabad, if you go to Karachi, if you go to Lahore. Yes, they are fewer in number compared to the people who are uneducated, but I think there are a lot of girls who want to be in sports, who want to be educated, and there are parents who want to encourage their daughters. So I think it will come up one day, Pakistan. That’s what I believe.
Girl Unbound is showing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London on 15th and 16th March, tickets here