Bullied for being a sports-loving girl, threatened by the Taliban and forced to hide inside her bedroom for three years – Maria Toorpakai Wazir has had to endure more than most on her way to becoming a professional sportsperson. But as she tells Gruffudd Owen, her ambitions go beyond the squash court
Life as a successful sportsperson; it’s a classic childhood dream.
To fulfil most dreams, however, requires a strong dose of reality consisting of persistent hard work, considerable sacrifice and tireless determination.
Long hours spent on the practice field, a diminished social life and the stress of getting noticed; all are to be expected for any aspiring sports star.
Bullying, death threats and oppression, on the other hand, are not.
But then again, Maria Toorpakai Wazir is no ordinary athlete. Here is her story.
“I am not going to give up”
Maria was born and raised in South Waziristan, a northwestern tribal region of Pakistan known as one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Defying strict cultural mores dictating that women and girls remain in the home, she excelled at sport after moving to nearby Peshawar – attracting hostile attention as a consequence.
"The way I was raised at home, I was given the same opportunities as my brother. I grew up like a tomboy from a young age, and my name was Genghis Khan.
"I ended up in sports accidently. It wasn’t something that I chose. We are tribal people, and we don’t have sports like squash in tribal regions. When we moved to Peshawar, the first sport I was introduced to was weightlifting. After some time, I decided to play squash, because it was such a huge sport in the city.
"When people began to find out that I was actually a girl and not a boy, the atmosphere turned completely upside-down. The pleasantness went away, and there was extreme pressure, bullying and harassment.
"I couldn’t understand why this was happening, and it just made me realise that it’s so hard to be a girl in this society.
"That triggered something in my mind, and I told myself: ‘I’m not going to give up, and I’m not listening to what you think. This is how I am, and this is who I am. I’m as strong as a man, and I can play sports.’ And that’s how I kept going, because I didn’t believe what they believed."
“What was going to happen?”
The abuse suffered by Maria was so vitriolic (including death threats from the Taliban) that she was forced to hide in her bedroom for three years, despite having turned professional in squash. Practising against her bedroom wall, she also spent her time writing to clubs, players and coaches in a desperate attempt to continue her career elsewhere. In 2011, she eventually struck lucky when Canada-based Jonathon Power – a former world no. 1 – invited her to train at his academy in Toronto.
"It was very hard, especially for my parents to let me go alone all the way to Canada. I had no money, I had a one-way ticket, and I was going all the way to this huge faraway land. And I didn’t know anything.
"My parents told me that everything would be fine, but when I arrived, I was afraid. I was a Muslim from Waziristan. What was going to happen?
"But when I settled down I found it totally different. I am respected; no one cares what my religion is. Everyone is so accepting, so loving, and so caring; when I first arrived, they asked me if I wanted to go to the mosque and pray. I get to travel and I get to meet different people from different religions, cultures and parts of the world.
"Today I consider them like my family, whether they’re Jewish, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist. And I think that it’s all because of sport."
“I can be their voice”
This stability has enabled Maria to focus on her charity work as well as her squash career. Using her high-profile status to help others in Pakistan’s tribal areas, she established the Maria Toorpakai Foundation, which aims to promote peace and gender equality in the region by investing in education and sports for children.
"My aim with the foundation is to explain how our society works, how our region works, and how beautiful it is. At the same time, I know how to deal with my people, and they accept me more than anyone else, because I am from the same region, the same tribe, and the same blood.
"I think it’s easy for me to approach them and bring change to them, rather than anyone else. I can be their voice."
“Squash should be an Olympic sport”
Although Maria did not compete at the Rio 2016 Olympics (squash is not on the Olympic programme), she was inspired by the exploits of the Refugee Olympic Team, their struggles striking a familiar chord.
"I’m very thankful to the International Olympic Committee and everyone who helped the refugees to compete. It was amazing, and seeing how the refugees didn’t have a flag or a proper country to represent brought tears to my eyes. But they are a part of the world, and they are accepted as global citizens.
"I truly believe that squash should be an Olympic sport. I would love to be on that stage with other athletes, because we’re no less than them. It’s such a physically and mentally demanding sport; it should definitely be there.
"We’ve held events in front of the pyramids in Egypt, in Dubai, and the Tournament of Champions in New York’s Grand Central Station. It’s a wonderful sport for people to watch."
“A story about family and struggle”
Her incredible story even prompted American filmmaker Erin Heidenreich to produce a documentary about Maria’s life, Girl Unbound: The War To Be Her.
"It took a long time for them to bring everything together. They were filming for five years, and it’s very genuine in the sense that the director actually got to go to Pakistan.
"I took them to tribal areas, which was very risky, but I admire their strength, how they all made it there, and filmed there.
"It’s a wonderful film for people to see, and it will help them understand the region too. It’s a story about family and struggle, and at the same time about a region that has never been known for anything other than terrorism."
“Everything will change”
Maria’s immediate aim is to try and break into the world top 10. In the long term, she hopes that her experience can empower other young girls in Pakistan to speak up and pursue their dreams.
"Girls are strong. The only thing is the mindset; they have to believe in themselves, they have to know that they’re talented.
"They should speak up for their rights; they should stand up for themselves. And whatever they want to do, I want to tell them they can achieve anything and be whatever they want. They have to stand up for themselves.
"And everything will change; their lives will change."