South Waziristan, in the northwest of Pakistan, along the Afghan border, has been called “the most dangerous place on earth.” Fundamentalist and repressive, this is the home of the Taliban, where young girls rarely go to school and extremists consider women’s sports un-Islamic. This is Maria Toorpakai Wazir’s home. Disguised as a boy when she was a child, Maria grew up differently from other girls. This is the story of a girl who should not have been let outside her home after the age of eight, who is now on a journey to become the number one squash player in the world and prove that women can do anything.
Maria’s father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir is one of the Tribal elders, a descendant from a large and prominent political family in South Waziristan. Although he comes from the ultra-conservative tribal Pashtun society, he has always been a strong advocate for equal rights and opportunities for both men and women. He would make no distinction between sons and daughters, and due to this equal treatment he was considered an outcast, but he never cared, and in fact due to his unwavering encouragement and support for his wife and daughters, today many in the FATA have changed their minds. As a young man he observed, that unlike men who were privileged in that society, women were not given the right to education, health care facilities and were married off at a very early age; he then began speaking out in his community about women’s rights. He would argue with the elders of his tribe which was unacceptable to them. He felt impassioned that empowering the women of his community was not just right and Islamic, but also essential to the development and growth of the society. His family denounced him, saying Shams was mentally ill. He observed that there were people who supported his stance but were very few. He also realized that this perception of most of the tribal people was not their fault but it was due to illiteracy, ignorance, and limited knowledge of Islam.
His family married him off to the daughter of a rival political family, Yasrab Nayab. Shams loved Yasrab and when he found out that she was keen about continuing her education, he not only permitted but also encouraged her and supported her in every step of life. He also gave her the freedom of choice to wear or not to wear the burqa. Knowing this, his tribe severely castigated him for introducing a wrong and “un-Islamic”culture. He suffered attempts on his life for his beliefs. Due to this worsening situation he had to leave his ancestral house, his luxurious life, and shifted to a place far way from his relatives where he was on his own with the responsibilities of his family to shoulder. He would help Yasrab in house chores and with taking care of the children, which was quite a rare thing to be done by a Pashtun man. He kept shifting from town to town in search for better education facilities and peaceful life for his family. But despite his life of struggle, he never let his children realize that they had limited financial resources or that they had no cousins to celebrate festivals with. He provided them best facilities and a friendly environment and would always tell them that they come from a prestigious family. They had four sons and two daughters. Shams had a plan not only for his sons but also for his daughters.
At the age of three, when Ayesha was to begin her education at a school, he shifted from South Waziristan to a nearby town where his wife also started getting further education. He would buy different books and would teach his children in a very friendly and engaging way. When the light would be out, he would teach them suras from the Holy Quran and would ask questions from taught subjects. Ayesha was fond of her studies. Although Maria was always different from her older sister. She didn’t want to stay inside and learn. At the age of four, one day her parents were out, she burnt all her girly dresses, cut her hair herself and put on her brother’s clothes. When her father saw this, he laughed and said here we have “Changez Khan” (Genghis Khan, greatest warrior in the history of the world ). From that point, Maria, with her shaved head, wearing boys clothes, would hang out with her brothers and other boys. She would be found carrying toy guns, a sling shot and stones in her hands and often in a scuffle with the boys in those areas. She became the fifth son of the family with her name Changez Khan to those in the neighborhood. When in Darra Adam Khel (FATA), she used to ride a bicycle wearing pants and shirts. There were only a few people living close to Maria’s house in the area who knew that the bicycle riding Changez Khan was actually a girl. It was extremely strange and daring in the conservative Pashtun Tribal society where girls are kept confined to the four walls of their houses. Shams never cared about what others thought or said.
“People didn’t recognize me. I was going outside, hanging with boys, going to mountains, hunting,” Maria says.
In the year 2001, the family moved to Peshawar, provincial capital of the north western now KPK province (formerly NWFP province). Shams noticed that Maria’s weight was growing rapidly and she was increasingly brawling with the boys around. He looked for a way to channel her energy in a positive way and found out sports as an effective outlet . Shams also considered sports for Maria due to the realization that with her growing age, it would be very difficult to make her stay at home like other girls since Maria had been give the rights of boys from a very early age. Shams was a bit shy telling people Maria’s true identity as there was no concept of girls in sports in the entire region, so he introduced her to sports with her boyish name where “Changes Khan” joined weightlifting . After two months Maria participated in the boys Weightlifting Championship in Lahore, and she, as Changez Khan, won from the boys in her category. Maria became the first ever girl to play any sport in the whole NWFP and FATA because even in big cities such as Peshawar, it was considered a taboo and freakish for the Pashtun girls to play sports. When Maria was twelve years old, within a few months Maria, still disguised as a boy, ranked number two in Pakistan for weightlifting in the junior division.
Not too long after though, near where Maria trained for weight lifting, she discovered the squash courts.
Squash is the second biggest sport in Pakistan played by the elite. During her break time from weightlifting, Maria with her brother would sneak into the nearby squash courts to watch kids playing where she would grab any opportunity to try the game of squash. She enjoyed hitting and her decision was made. She wanted to play squash. She, with her father, went to the PAF squash academy, Peshawar. There again Maria was introduced as Changez Khan but when the director of the academy told them that they needed to submit a birth certificate in order to get admission, then Changez Khan’s true identity had to be revealed as Maria Toorpakai Wazir. The director was pleasantly surprised and was glad that finally a girl had come to play sports. He gifted her a squash racquet which bore signature of the squash legend, Jonathon Power. This is where Maria Toorpakai’s journey as a squash player started. For about two months, no one in the academy but the director knew that Maria was a girl. When the people in the academy found out about Maria’s true identity it was not easy for Maria. People, especially those boys who had been defeated by Maria, started bullying and teasing her for no reason. This was not limited to the people at the squash courts but the local people on her way to and from the squash courts would look at her disrespectfully and call her names. It was agonizing for Maria and shortly she understood that she was a girl in a society where girls had no right of choice but she would not tell her father and kept it to herself. She took sanctuary in the sport but due to little financial resources, she was wearing worn out shoes, second hand tracksuit, and would tape torn squash balls for her practice. Nothing stopped her determination. She would fill a water bottle, lock herself inside a court, and hit the ball against the wall, alone, for up to 10 hours a day. Her father would make her run along the horse cart as he would be riding for her training telling her not to care about what others think. Once, she was about to leave with other male players of the academy for Karachi on a train to play in a squash tournament, her father made her wear a freakishly large earring in one ear. He told her that you are unique from others, you have received qualities that others don’t have and to not allow others thoughts to affect her. So Maria, with her shaved head, kept wearing that earring while everyone around was staring at her and whispering and jeering on the train. This was a lesson for Maria to never allow others opinions to deter her path.
From twelve to sixteen, Maria spent every waking minute in the court, playing until her hands were completely swollen, bruised, and bleeding. She traveled the country playing in tournaments, traveling alone via public transport to far away cities where she would sometimes it would be midnight by the time she arrived. By the time she was sixteen years old, Maria won the bronze medal in the World Juniors Championship. She was ranked third in the world in the under nineteen category and had entered the top 80 in the World senior ranking. Maria’s victories brought her in to the limelight. She received many awards including an award from President Pervez Musharraf. Her success also drew attention of the Taliban where the threats began. They left notes saying that if she continued to play squash, the family would face severe consequences. She was worried for the protection of her family members and herself, but at the same time she couldn’t imagine herself being away from squash . She would frequently think about carrying a gun for protection and a cyanide pill in case she was kidnapped. This matter of threats and her security was discussed in the Pakistani Parliament. Subsequently security check posts were set around her house and on the way to the squash club where snipers were posted above the squash club. She was also provided undercover security by the government.
“At first I was brave,” she says. “But the more I came to learn that a woman is the biggest honor and can become the biggest dishonor if any mishap occurred. I never wanted to be the reason of dishonor for my family as my father would never be able to lift his head if I got kidnapped. Also, I never wanted to be the reason of any innocents death at the squash club due to any bomb blast as squash court itself has so much glass in it. With this, I decided to stay home.” Maria went into hiding.
Now Maria was in another kind of fight entirely. During the time the world was sleeping, Maria would train in her room hitting against her walls from evening till morning everyday. After three and a half years of playing in her room, one day, Maria and her brother found an old unused squash court in the Peshawar Education Board. They broke in, cleaned the cobwebs, broken cement and dirt, and repainted the lines. She only went out at night, completely covered, hiding under a hooded sweatshirt as often as possible. Maria and her brother would sneak out to play squash in the middle of the night until they were chased off. Then her father kept taking her to this squash court while continuously changing number plates of their car. Through this she remained determined. She knew and realized during her these past years that she would have to leave her home, family and country if wants to pursue playing squash with peace of mind. During this time she had been emailing to squash clubs, academies, schools and universities around the world offering to coach in exchange for training and the chance to play. Four years passed by with no reply. Then the email came. Jonathon Power, world champion, was inviting her to come train in Canada.
In 1999, Jonathon Power became the first North American squash player to reach the World No. 1 ranking. A rock star and legend of the squash world, Power was as well known for being one of the greatest shot makers in the history of the game, as for being one of the most competitive. He and Maria have been training slightly over a year now. In her first tournament, Maria won against number one ranked girls from all over the world. Their goal is to make Maria a world champion, against all odds.
Maria’s father says he is grateful his daughter can pursue squash again. If she becomes world champion, he says, it will set an example for women in all Muslim countries. He wants his daughter to show the world the moderate face of the tribal people and be a role model for Pashtun girls and women. He says, if given the right opportunities, “There could be a thousand Maria’s.”
Maria’s father as a young man speaking out for equality among women.
Ayesha, Maria’s sister, speaking out and empowering tribal women.