Skip to main site content.
Maria Toorpakai Wazir. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Gender bender

Meet the Pakistani squash champion who disguised herself as a boy

By Brigit Katz on April 8, 2016

It sounds like a plotline plucked out of a novel: a Pakistani girl disguises herself as a boy so she can play the sport that has captured her heart. But the story of Maria Toorpakai Wazir, Pakistan’s number one female squash player, is — unbelievably —true. For years, Toorpakai Wazir participated in athletics while dressed as a boy, even gaining acceptance into a squash academy run by the Pakistani air force. When her secret came out, the Taliban tried to put a stop to her career — and failed.

At the Women in the World Summit on Friday, Toorpakai Wazir spoke to Gillian Tett, managing editor of the Financial Times, about her remarkable journey to squash stardom. Toorpakai Wazir, now 25 years old, hails from South Waziristan, which lies along the border with Afghanistan. Squash is one of the most popular sports in the country, particularly among the urban elite. But in rural areas like South Waziristan, women are relegated to the home and expressly barred from participating in sports.

“The girls over there are living a very different life,” Toorpakai Wazir,  explained. “People don’t allow their girls education, they get shot [if they try] … I was the first person playing sports in skirts.”

(Courtesy of Maria Toorpaki Wazir)
(Courtesy of Maria Toorpakai Wazir)

From an early age, Toorpakai Wazir was different from other girls. She wasn’t interested in dolls and didn’t want to wear dresses. She got into fistfights with boys. “I was strong,” Toorpakai Wazir said. “I wanted to hang out just like my brothers … They were running around, and wrestling, and I thought I would just be like them. So I tossed all my girly clothes in a fire [and] cut my hair.”

Her nickname was “Genghis Khan,” she added.

Fortunately, Toorpakai Wazir’s father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, held very different attitudes towards women than other men in their village. “My father is very supportive and he believes in equality,” Toorpakai Wazir said. Qayyum Wazir moved his family to the city of Peshawar and, realizing that his daughter needed a better outlet for her energy, suggested that she take up weightlifting. He introduced her to other players as his son, Genghis Khan.

“I won the boys’ national championship as Genghis Khan,” Toorpakai Wazir said.

“You beat the boys at their own game?” Tett asked.


When Qayyum Wazir saw that his daughter had begun to develop an interest in squash, he encouraged her to pursue that as well. He took her to an academy in Peshawar that is run by the Pakistani air force. Toorpakai Wazir began practicing for ten hours a day, and became enthralled with the sport. “Squash gave me life,” she said, simply.

For several months, Toorpakai Wazir played as a boy. But when the director of the squash academy asked to see her birth certificate, Toorpakai Wazir could no longer conceal her gender. When word got out, a campaign of harassment began. “I was bullied, I was harassed, anything you can count,” she said. “It was unbelievable.”

Still, Toorpakai Wazir persevered. She won several national junior championships and even received an award from Pakistan’s president. “I don’t like giving up,” she said. “Because life comes once, and you have to take a risk.”

But as her profile as an athlete grew, Toorpakai Wazir and her family began receiving threats from the Taliban. The situation became so severe that the Pakistani government installed snipers on the squash courts that housed Toorpakai Wazir’s matches.

In spite of this bolstered security, Toorpakai Wazir decided that the risk of continuing  in Pakistan was too great. “I wasn’t scared for myself,” she said. “I was scared for everyone out there. Because if I [went] to a squash court, it was going to get blown up.”

Maria Toorpakai Wazir. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)
Maria Toorpakai Wazir. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

And so Toorpakai Wazir retreated into her home. Afraid to leave the house, she practiced squash in her room, every day for three and a half years. She also started writing emails — thousands of emails — to squash players in the West, hoping that someone would be able to provide assistance. Among the recipients of her messages was Jonathan Power, a now-retired squash champion from Canada. Power offered to bring Toorpakai Wazir over to Toronto and act as her trainer.

Toorpakai Wazir was excited and grateful for the opportunity to play squash in Canada, free from the threat of brutality. But she was also scared. Toorpakai Wazir had heard “a lot of negative things” about the West while living in Pakistan, and worried that she would be arrested upon her arrival in Canada because she is a Muslim.

“But when I came here people are so loving, so kind,” she said. “They asked me if I wanted to go to a mosque. They gave me a Koran.”

Toorpakai Wazir is currently the number one female squash player in Pakistan, and ranks 49th in the world. Playing squash has allowed her to both fulfill a passion and bridge the sometimes-difficult gap between two cultures.

“I think the distance, we have to come across and have to meet each other,” she said. “Through sports, that gave me a chance. I got better as a squash player and I got better as a human being.”

Additional reporting provided by Marion Bradford.