Even as a little girl, Maria Toorpakai rejected girls’ clothing and got into scraps with boys; perhaps not a problem in the West, but a serious issue in Waziristan, the conservative region of Pakistan she called home. In a twist, though, her parents supported her, and her father anointed her with a man’s name: Genghis Khan, in honor of the warrior spirit in his daughter. Playing as a boy, she got involved in weightlifting and later turned to squash at her father’s encouragement.
A few months after starting serious training, though, she was outed, creating a dangerous situation for both her and her family. Other squash players teased her for being a girl, despite her natural talent and drive, while her father was warned that allowing her to play sports in shorts brought shame on his family and the tribe. Although he fiercely defended her, Maria and her family were aware that her passion for sports was on a collision course with the values of her community; Pakistan’s squash federation even set up safety checkpoints and guards to ensure her safety, but ultimately, Maria was forced to make a difficult choice: give up the sport she loved to protect not just her family but other players (she was concerned about the amount of glass on squash courts and the devastation a bomb or gun could do), or leave the country to pursue training in squash in a region that would be less hostile.
She started a letter-writing campaign, reaching out to any institution with a squash court in search of a new place to train, and eventually landed with Jonathan Power of Canada. A legend in the sport, he was apparently astounded to get a letter from Toorpakai, but he rallied and invited the girl over for training. Today, she holds the rank of 49th best woman squash player in the world, no mean feat for a woman who faced such tremendous obstacles when it came to getting sports training.
Toorpakai’s success involves a combination of factors. Her father’s unrelenting support clearly played, and continues to play, an important role. In conservative regions of Pakistan where men are the absolute rulers of their households, girls like Maria don’t necessarily become success stories, because their nascent interest in sports could be swiftly crushed. Her father’s support illustrates the power of social change and the instrumental role all generations can play in creating equality.
But her father wasn’t the only player; Maria herself was also clearly driven and ferociously determined when it came to following her dream of a career in sports. Turning professional in 2006, she showed that she had the skills and drive to push her way to the top of the world’s squash rankings, and that’s something that her father’s support alone couldn’t have given her. While her stint as a boy may have been brief, it and her relocation to Canada to train illustrated how far she was willing to go in pursuit of her dreams.
Photo credit: Darla Hueske