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Pakistan's first pro female squash player Maria Toorpakai Wazir. (YouTube)


Hiding in plain sight: How a champion Pakistani athlete eluded the Taliban for years

By Virginia Vigliar on July 19, 2017

“I come from the same blood as Taliban,” Maria Toorpakai Wazir said in a recent speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a human rights conference that happens every year in May.

When asked how it was to live among terrorists, Toorpakai Wazir explains that in her area “the system is so conservative that you don’t know who is a Taliban and who is not.” There is a gun and drug culture, she continues, that has spread like wildfire in the recent decades. Because of the lack of government presence and infrastructure (mainly schools and hospitals), there is not much left for inhabitants to do. “These are lawless areas.”

Toorpakai Wazir was born in Waziristan, Pakistan, a semi-independent tribal region spreading across the border with Afghanistan. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, mujahidin escaped to Waziristan, which became a sanctuary for terrorists. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 also pushed many al Qaeda and Taliban elements into the region. The area is considered especially dangerous for women, both because of the presence of terrorists and the prevailing culturally conservative mindset. Women’s education, for example, is considered a vulgarity.

Also contributing to Waziristan’s tattered image is the fact that to those who aren’t residents, the region is difficult to enter. NGOs, human rights activists and media are seldom present. “It’s a restricted zone, so how can you hear the voices from those who want change, or don’t want to be terrorists?” she wonders.

A liberal family 

Toorpakai Wazir’s strong sense of freedom is rooted in her upbringing. She grew up in a different kind of family. Her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, brought Toorpakai Wazir and her siblings up with exposure to liberal views; the women of the family had the same rights as the men. She explains that she grew up in a household where everyone could question everything, and no questions went unanswered. She touched on her home life last year during her appearance at the 7th Annual Women in the World New York Summit. Speaking with  Financial Times managing editor Gillian Test, Toorpakai Wazir said, “My father is very supportive and he believes in equality.”

The situation was different in other homes. Toorpakai Wazir recalls an incident she witnessed when she was just a child, visiting one of her friends. “It was bad timing, I would say,” she remembers. The mother of her friend, after hearing a knock on the front door, opened it to find a man waiting there. The woman’s husband, furious that she had looked into the eyes of another man, grabbed her by the hair, dragged her back into the house and began beating her. This all happened in front of a group of children. “That kind of thing was shocking, to see how women are treated,” she says.

When asked how her father achieved such revolutionary ideas despite being from such a conservative place, Toorpakai Wazir points out that his views are revolutionary in the context of a Pakistani society, but that in reality his mindset is very normal.

Living as a boy under Taliban control 

It is no surprise then that her father reacted with nothing but support when, at 4 years old, Toorpakai Wazir decided to cut her hair, burn all her “girly clothes,” as she likes to say, and begin living as a boy. From that day, Toorpakai Wazir lived as “Genghis Khan,” a name given to her by her father.

When asked whether her decision stemmed from gender identity confusion, she replies, “No, I realized that with short hair and boys clothes I had more fun and freedom, and that’s all the understanding I had.”

Women and girls, she explains, are not allowed out of the house where she lived. Although her mother and sister were free to live a more liberal life, for security reasons, they could not hang outside. “My sister was 8 years old when she had to stop leaving the house,” unless she was accompanied by her father. Toorpakai Wazir could not accept the same in her life.

She reflects on her childhood as a boy with genuine enthusiasm and awe. Toorpakai Wazir and her friends would go out and explore the beautiful landscapes of the region. “There would be different kinds of flowers — jasmine, rose, and sunflowers. It was beautiful,” she remembers with the glowing eyes of a child seeing Disneyland for the first time.

While it may be hard to grasp for some, since the day she burned her clothes, Toorpakai Wazir lived as a boy, and did not doubt for one moment that it was any different. When asked whether she felt sorry for her mother or sister she replies, “No, I thought I am a boy and she is a girl.”

Finding sports 

“I was an aggressive and restless child, always,” Toorpakai Wazir says. She often got into fights, which led her to playing sports. She needed a place to vent her anger, and her father suggested to try weightlifting. At the age of 12, Toorpakai Wazir was ranked No. 2 in the country — competing as a boy.

Squash phenom Maria Toorpakai Wazir helps Pakistani girls with their racket technique. Toorpakai Wazir told Women in the World she wants to change the prevailing mentality in Pakistan about girls playing sports.

A few years later, when her family had moved to Peshawar, and Toorpakai Wazir was still living as Genghis Khan, she began playing squash, which she immediately loved. But when the local squash academy required a birth certificate, her identity was revealed, her secret exposed. “Fortunately, the director shared the same values as my father and handed me a racquet,” she has said.

When she started playing squash, “out of 400 boys I was the only one” who was a girl, she tells me. Toorpakai Wazir is now the No. 1 squash player in Pakistan, and the first woman to compete internationally representing her country. But this was not an easy journey. When she talks about the first days she lived as a girl when her identity was revealed, a look of disgust permeates her face.

“No one would have lunch with me, they thought I’m strange,” she says, later explaining that with the exclusion also came a lot of bullying, especially from boys who had been her friends. Everything changed. She could not even step out of the house because she would be bullied and harassed while walking in the streets. “I couldn’t just because I was a girl,” she says. Toorpakai Wazir then recalls the time when the same boys were scared to fight with her.“ Genghis is strong,” her brother would say, warning the other boys not to mess with her. “I really enjoyed that position of power.” While she oozed confidence when living as a boy, she now felt like hiding.

But Toorpakai Wazir did not let the limitations of being a girl in Pakistan stop her from pursuing her dreams. Despite the bad looks from neighbors, and threats from the Taliban, she persevered. “I snatched that respect from them,” she says.“ Well, they weren’t going to give it to me. I snatched it from them!”

As  Toorpakai Wazir became more competitive in squash, her fame grew, and, therefore, she was increasingly in danger. When threats from the Taliban became too much, she decided it was safer to stop playing.

Toorpakai Wazir spent three years of her life practicing squash on the wall and writing emails to professionals all over the world. Eventually, she got a reply from John Power, a Canadian professional squash player, who invited her to Canada to play. She left Pakistan six months later, and is now ranked 84th in the world.

“I have changed a lot” she says, highlighting that both her masculine and aggressive attitudes have toned down. “The way I deal with things now is more with words.” She says that her plan for the future is to create a foundation that allows girls, and boys, to access quality education and sports. “Not just education, quality education that focuses on morals and humanity,” she explains.

Toorpakai Wazir adds that she believes sports are important because they let people focus on themselves rather than others. Her dream is to change the mentality of Pakistani society, and also the way that Pakistan is seen in the Western world. “The more we know each other, the less there will be illusion, hate, fear.”

When I show her a photo that she presented at the Oslo Freedom Forum of her handing rackets to girls in Pakistan, I ask her why she wants to push women into sports. She replies quite simply, “When a boy wins they are celebrated, when a girl wins no one cares about them. That’s the kind of mentality I want to change.”

Below, watch Wazir’s appearance at the 2016 Women in the World New York Summit.

Virginia is a journalist and editor based in Barcelona. She is the managing editor of Words in the Bucket, an online platform discussing human rights, gender, development and environment issues. She has worked in the development sector in Malawi and Kenya and Somalia before returning to Europe, where she gained experience in the United Kingdom, Norway and Spain. She also collaborates with Oxfam. Follow her on Twitter here.