Maria Toorpakai’s life story sounds like something straight out of a movie. Growing up in Waziristan, an area on the Afghan border run by extremist Pakistani Taliban leaders and often referred to as "the most dangerous place in the world," girls were not allowed to play sports or encouraged to go to school. Toorpakai always felt different, and preferred playing outside with boys over sitting indoors with the women. So, at just four years old, she boldly chopped off all her hair, burned all of the dresses she owned, and decided that she would rather be raised like a boy.
Toorpakai could hold her own with the boys, and often came home bruised and bleeding from fights, but her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, a progressive advocate for women’s rights, never scolded her. "He didn’t want to discourage me that I’m a girl and should stay home," Toorpakai tells Refinery29. "In society, it’s very difficult for a person like me to survive." Instead, he gave her a boy’s name, Genghis Khan, and enrolled her in weightlifting to give her an outlet.
"I was lifting weights all by myself, getting stronger and more and more aggressive," she says. "I would go out and walk like a weightlifter or bodybuilder, and I was proud of my strength." At the weightlifting club, she stumbled upon people playing squash, and was mesmerized by the kids jumping and diving after balls. She was also drawn to the fancy racquets and nice outfits, especially the shorts that they got to wear. "It was such a beautiful room, with people sitting outside clapping; I just liked the energy and the environment," she says. She asked her dad if she could try squash, and he smiled and told her, "Sure. Now you’re going to hit the wall rather than people."
They enrolled Toorpakai, then going by the name Genghis Khan, at a squash academy run by the Pakistani Air Force, but there was just one problem: The coach asked to see a birth certificate. The jig was up, and Toorpakai’s dad confessed to the coach that she was his daughter, not his son. The coach was surprised and delighted to see a girl playing sports. Soon, Toorpakai became a squash phenom, and her performance garnered national attention, which lead to multiple death threats from the Taliban.
Fortunately, Toorpakai was able to connect with Jonathon Power, the #1 squash player in North America at the time, who invited her to train in Canada. Today, Toorpakai, 27, is back in Waziristan helping her sister, Ayesha Gulalai, a prominent Pakistani politician, run for election. She’s still playing squash and mentoring young squash hopefuls through her foundation. "It's very important to change the mentality and mindset of boys and girls to have a smooth life," she says. "The more boys are engaged in positive activities like sports, I think it will be very helpful to eliminate terrorism, drug culture, and gun culture."
Toorpakai is the subject of an upcoming PBS documentary, called The War To Be Her, which premieres on Monday at 10 pm on the PBS television series POV (check local listings) and streaming for free at POV.org starting Tuesday. Here, she spoke to Refinery29 about her love of squash, why playing sports is considered a radical act, and her hopes for future generations of athletes.
In the film, you say that playing sports is considered an "extreme act," and some people might not understand exactly what that means. Can you explain?
"The rural areas are very extreme. There are places where women aren’t even considered as human. The area that I come from, women are objects, and are sold in marriages. They don’t have anything to say, and they can’t make decisions or anything about their future, they just have to listen for the orders, and they have to obey. In Waziristan, it’s a very patriarchal society. Even the squash legends: those guys travel all around the world, but never wanted the women to go out of their houses and play sports.
"People do not really believe in education. People think that women are derailed when they go to school, get into activities that are considered dishonorable, or start falling in love with people. A lot of men do not want their women or girls to be exposed to the outer world and information, like phones, television, or newspapers. Sending girls to schools, they thought that they’d become vulgar. Sports is completely out of the imagination. If a girl plays sports, she’s considered like a very easy girl. She doesn’t have an honor. They think these girls play sports just to be there for men."
If you have good intentions in your heart, and what you feel in your heart is actually positive, then good things will happen to you.
How did that affect you throughout your training?
"When I started playing squash, I had so many fights with men. They started harassing, bullying, very abusive behavior. Men would try to touch you, or talk to you with very filthy, vulgar [language]. Even some coaches would talk very vulgar. I had no idea why they were talking to me like that, because I never grew up in such an environment. My father never talked to me like this.
"I slapped men, I beat them with sticks and squash rackets. I was so angry, I would punch them. If I went to the market, I would go with a stick. There were a couple of times that I beat men publicly to teach them a lesson. I was trying to figure out, what can I do to make this better?
"Because I grew up very freely with men and boys. I would smile, laugh, joke, and I would sit among boys and I had no problem. I had to understand that this is not the way things are going to work. I started going to squash, and I would play by myself for 8-10 hours everyday, not talking to anyone that much. Eventually, things started changing. Everyone started calling me sister, paying respect. I’m very happy that today, all those boys treat me as their sister, and they always tell me how proud they are of me."
You and your family seem so optimistic despite everything you’ve been through. How do you stay positive in the face of adversity?
"I think that nature is the most powerful thing. Nature, some people would call it divine energy or God, but I would say that there is something in the universe that will help you stay successful, and protect you, and guide you. There’s some higher energy that will guide you to a very good spot, because everything comes with your intentions. If you have good intentions in your heart, and what you feel in your heart is actually positive, then good things will happen to you. But if you keep hate and bad things in your heart and in your soul, bad things will happen for you.
"Everyone in the world — people, kids, everyone — has to make sure to stay positive, happy, kind, and love each other. I think that will change the world and change their life into heaven. The hell and heaven concept is on this world: If you try to create hell for others, you will yourself live in hell. But if you create heaven for everyone else, you’ll be in heaven — that’s the answer."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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