This Woman Hid Her Gender For Nearly A Decade To Follow Her Dream

At the age of 4, Maria Toorpakai stacked her dresses, “still as corpses,” in a pile, soaked them in kerosene, lit the match, and watched the “silken color disintegrate” in the flames.

The pint-sized Pakistani girl feared that she would otherwise be “embalmed in a life of pretty clothes, doomed to either go to school or stay home."

To escape that fate, Toorpakai then slipped on her brother’s clothes and became known as “Genghis Khan,” a boy. Her gender remained undisclosed for almost a decade.

Today, Toorpakai is Pakistan’s No. 1 female squash player, and she ranks in the top 50 internationally. Her decision to spend much of her childhood disguised as a boy in order to escape mistreatment and marriage, as well as her later success on the squash courts, are detailed in her new memoir, A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight.

Now 25, Toorpakai lives and trains in Canada, a world away from the tribal South Waziristan where she and her siblings were born. That area of northwest Pakistan is a lawless region. It's considered among the most dangerous places on the planet, the home of the Pakistani Taliban nearby. The sound of gunfire and stories of murder and other family conflicts were "very normal."

But she was lucky to be born into a family of "freethinkers." Her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, a tribal elder, was a strong advocate for women’s rights.
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Photo: Courtesy of A Different Kind of Daughter.
Maria Toorpakai poses in this undated photo.
“I was very equal to my brothers,” Toorpakai recounts.

Her sister, Ayesha Gulalai, would go on to become the youngest member of Parliament and a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan. Her mother, Yasrab Nayab, a teacher, founded a small school for girls and promoted education. “She’d go [from] village to village to ask families to send their daughters to school," Toorpakai said.

Her parents' progressive ideas created problems for the family. Because the father’s views were not aligned with those in their tribal home, they moved four or five times before she turned 10. Still, they were targeted over her mother's work promoting education. The young Toorpakai learned to use a gun to protect her family.

“Our house was stoned,” Toorpakai told Refinery29.

A self-described tomboy, Toorpakai roamed the streets and hung out with a rough crowd, “boys people referred to as street urchins and rats," she recalls in her memoir, which will be released in May. The family picked up and moved again in 2001, this time out of the tribal belt to Peshawar, the first “real” city she’d seen.

She attempted life as a girl wearing a school uniform as she tried to get an education. But even her parents' support couldn't allow her the same freedoms her male peers enjoyed. Once again, she took to street fighting with a gang of boys.

"There was no in-between for girls like me who wanted to run outside and play games and sports in the open air," she writes in her memoir. "Suddenly I was aware that, despite all of my father's efforts…I would never truly be free. In our culture, girls remained indoors, quiet and failed for life."

To pull her off the streets, her father introduced her to weight lifting. By the age of 12, still disguised as a boy, Toorpakai ranked second in Pakistan in the junior division.

There was no in-between for girls like me who wanted to run outside and play games and sports in the open air.

Maria Toorpakai
But weight lifting tournaments were rare. Bored with lifting weights in a room by herself, Toorpakai took up squash, Pakistan’s second biggest sport after cricket. But the director of an academy in Peshawar requested Toorpakai’s birth certificate as part of the admissions process. He was pleased to see that a girl had come to play the sport and gave her a racquet signed by Jonathan Power, a former world champion who would later become Toorpakai’s coach.

While she was elated at the chance to play, she struggled with her secret being revealed.

“When people came to know about me that I am a girl, then they treated me differently,” she told Refinery29. “What is wrong with this society, these people?”

Still, she excelled on the court. From 12 to 16 years old, she spent hours on the courts. In 2007, she turned professional. In that same year, then-President Pervez Musharraf honored her, attracting national coverage, but also flagging her to the Taliban. The fundamentalist group began to target her and her family. Security posts were set up by the Peshawar squash facilities, and by her home.

Toorpakai and her family were “well aware of the situation, the gravity of it.” The fear was exhausting, and the teenager tried to focus on her squash, but she was forced to practice for years in her room at home — or at night on an unused squash court.

Her conscience weighed on her as she worried that she could be putting others’ lives in danger. “Those kids, they come to play squash and they just want to play.” She began sending appeals around the world, emailing schools and clubs hoping one would offer her the chance to train and play.

After four years with little response, Power, the former world champion, invited her to train in Canada. She accepted.
Photo: Anupam Nath/AP Photo.
“I got her here and I wanted to help her achieve her goals," he recalls in a video trailer for her new book.

The squash pro has since gained an international following, and many supporters back home. Some women have even reportedly started naming their daughters after Toorpakai and her trailblazing sister.

“Maria Toorpakai is a true inspiration, a pioneer for millions of other women struggling to pave their own paths to autonomy, fulfillment, and genuine personhood,” Khaled Hosseini, author of best-selling novel The Kite Runner, wrote in a blurb for her book.

Toorpakai partially credits Qadar, or predestination, for her journey.

“The things that happen in my life just make me believe in everything. There’s miracles, there’s destiny, there’s god,” she told Refinery29. “Coming from that [tribal] region to this level, I just sometimes pinch myself [and think], 'Is it really me?' or, 'How come I am here?'"

She still visits Pakistan, but says she cannot move around freely. “You have a heavy heart when you go there,” Toorpakai said.

The 25-year-old hopes to compete in the Olympics, should a push to include squash in the 2024 games succeed. But her biggest dream is to see girls and women in her native tribal areas enjoy equal rights. She hopes one day to have sports facilities specifically for women and young children, including in the tribal areas — so “every girl can enjoy the same kind of safe and respectable environment and stay healthy.”
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