She has been called “the sporting equivalent of Malala.” With the backing of an enlightened father, Maria Toorpakai Wazir joined a squash team. This was taking an extraordinary risk, for Maria is from South Waziristan, a tribal area in Pakistan. Defying a culture that forbids women to play sports—indeed, that confines women to their homes—she chose the only possible way she could go out into society and play the sport she loved: disguising herself as a boy, playing on a boys’ team. (nickname: Genghis Kahn).

Even as a child of 4, she tells interviewer Gillian Tett, managing editor of the Financial Times, she was dismayed at the constrictions on the lives of women and girls. She wanted to go outdoors and roughhouse with her brothers and their friends. And she did, with the approval of her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, who believes in women’s equality with men.  “I was strong,” Brigid Katz quotes her as saying in an article on the New York Times Women in the World website.  “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.”

Fast-forward to when she was 12. Her father, who had moved his family to Peshawar, suggested that she take up weight-lifting, and, Katz’s article says, “ introduced her to other players as his son, Genghis Khan.

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

“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.”

But several months later, when the academy asked to see her birth certificate, her gender was discovered, and the death threats from the Taliban began.  At first she persevered, winning several Pakistani national junior championships. But finally, to preserve her life, she retreated to her home . . . where she practiced squash in her room every day for three and a half years.

To find out how she escaped from home imprisonment and became the 49th best female squash player in the world, read Brigid Katz’s articleTo see her interview with Gillian Tett, see the video above. 

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  • hillsmom May 20, 2016 at 11:44 am

    What an inspiring story! Perhaps women of the, may I say enlightened, world should band together and boycott these countries? I’m not sure if that would work, but perhaps shining a light on the prevalent misogyny will affect some small change. You might want to take a look at some of the appalling attitudes, unfortunately, being promoted in our own country. Why is it that the women have to suffer so…? (Did Gloria Steinum say something like that?)