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Looking to the Future

by Nazar Ul Islam
In conversation with squash superstar Maria Toorpakai Wazir.

In the decade since she has been playing professional squash, 25-year-old Maria Toorpakai Wazir has emerged as an international champion. Born in South Waziristan, she spent her formative years in the tribal areas before moving to Peshawar when she was 9 years old. She is currently training in Canada, and has been representing Pakistan in squash tournaments the world over. Earlier this month, she sat down with Newsweek Pakistan to discuss the challenges she has overcome to achieve this success and her plans for the future. Excerpts:

Why did your family leave North Waziristan?

Our main objective for leaving North Waziristan was access to better education. The tribal people of our region tend to lead simple lives and it was initially difficult to adjust to a big city like Peshawar. But as the [security] situation in North Waziristan worsened, our desire to return to our homeland grew weaker.

There have been reports of your family being threatened by the Taliban.

People in Waziristan [unfortunately] find new ideas and thoughts a bit difficult to digest. My father, however, is very progressive. He urged my mother to resume her studies [after marriage], and encouraged his daughters to continue education despite cultural norms. This was unacceptable to people in the region, who did not support female education or socializing between the sexes. These prevailing societal and cultural mores depressed my father and were a form of torture for him. Our house was even pelted with stones at one point.

Even after we moved to Peshawar, some concerns persisted. People here did not support my involvement in sports. It wasn’t considered acceptable for the local Pashtun community to have a young girl wearing shorts and playing squash. I was probably the first Pashtun girl to do so. The Talibanization of the recent past also resulted in threats directed at us.

It is very painful for me to see the word ‘Talib’ being misused by the terrorists. ‘Talib’ is a very beautiful word, which means ‘student’, and it is extremely sad that we don’t have any other word in our language to identify a student. I am a ‘Talib’ of squash but I can’t say that anymore.

When did you start playing squash?

I actually didn’t start out playing squash. My first love was weightlifting and I used the pseudonym ‘Gengis Khan’ to participate in the male category of that sport. I even won a position at the national level in the Under-16 category. Nobody could tell whether I was a boy or girl.

I’ve never been interested in being a ‘typical’ girl. When I was four, I told my father I wanted to wear the same clothes as my brother and play cricket, football outside with him and his friends. I also wanted to get my hair cut short like the boys. When he demurred, I collected all my girlish clothes and set them on fire so I would have to wear my brother’s clothes. This is when my father named me ‘Gengis Khan’ as a joke.

Looking back, I just wanted freedom. I had a strong physique and I liked playing with boys. I continued to do this until I turned 16.

What were the biggest challenges to your squash career?

In Peshawar I think I was the only girl playing squash at the time, which caused more than a few shocked reactions from people around us. Everyone used to look at me like I was an alien and I struggled with depression—often feeling like an outcast. I’ve never differentiated between men and women. I’m a girl. We shouldn’t treat people differently based on their gender.

I had to play alone initially because none of the boys were interested in playing with me. This grew worse after I started defeating boys willing to challenge me. They thought it was humiliating to lose to a girl. Many of them started teasing me to discourage me. I believe their male ego couldn’t stand losing to a girl and they didn’t want to be reminded of it by my continued presence. They weren’t the only ones who teased me; a lot of people tried to convince me to quit the sport.

What kept you going? Who supported you?

My family supported me throughout my career. My father would always tell us, ‘If you don’t feel guilty, then don’t worry about it.’ I was lucky he didn’t clip my wings. Our country isn’t progressing as it should because it is beset by so many wrongdoings—we have liars, hypocrites, people who preach religion but don’t follow its teachings. We see slavery but term it ‘love.’

Pashtun culture confines women and they say it is out of love. Pashtun women are very honorable. Had our men encouraged us, or used their ‘honor’ to support us, we could have all pursued higher education or sports while maintaining our respect and dignity.

No family can flourish if the male members—the father, brothers, uncles—don’t trust the women. Putting a bird in a cage is not the same as loving it. As the old idiom goes, real love is when you set a bird free and trust it to return to you.

What prompted your journey to Canada [where Toorpakai is currently based and trains]?

Canada was never my destination. But in 2007, with the security situation continuing to worsen and growing Talibanization, I knew I had to get out. I had started receiving threats from the Taliban and I just wanted a place to play the game with peace of mind and complete freedom. I started emailing squash clubs all over the world hoping to find support. I must have sent hundreds of emails before I finally got a response. It was from Jonathon Power, a leading Canadian squash champion. I initially didn’t believe it because I actually started playing with a Jonathon Power series squash racket. But after some back-and-forth I finally left for Canada in 2011.

Have you considered contesting the sport as a representative of Canada?

There have been multiple offers over the years. Kuwait, Canada and some other countries wanted me to represent them in the sport. But I’ve always wanted to represent Pakistan. I’m the only major female squash player of the country. If I leave [permanently], who will represent Pakistani women in the game at an international level? My entire family has an offer to move abroad, but they don’t want to leave either.

I hope to represent Pakistan in the World Open later this year. I was the runner-up in the 12th South Asian Games. But barely anyone cared; that’s the primary reason for Pakistan’s talent decamping abroad. People here [in Pakistan] rarely appreciate their own talent, whether it be singers, actors or athletes.

What are your thoughts on the future of squash in Pakistan?

We need to stop dwelling in the past. We once enjoyed global acclaim through our squash players but that was a long time ago. Our players need to train using modern techniques and improve their playing styles. Once we look toward the future, we can make our squash performance as great as it was in the past.

I am encouraged by the girls from Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar who have started playing squash. The government should support and encourage them to continue. When I started playing squash, hundreds of people used to participate in local tournaments. Now, there is barely any interest [due to government apathy].

What are your thoughts on Malala Yousafzai and the public’s response to her activism?

It’s unfortunate that our people cannot tolerate the success of people around them. The people who discuss her actions negatively are just expressing their own failure [in achieving lasting change]. Do they not know how much she [Yousafzai] has suffered? She’s talking about educating Pakistani youth, especially girls, which is essential for our country’s development. She has done nothing wrong and we should all support her efforts wholeheartedly.

I support everyone who is trying to promote Pakistan in good faith, whether it be Malala, [Oscar winner] Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy or [philanthropist] Abdul Sattar Edhi.

What are your plans for the future?

I have been saving up my winnings and match fees and am currently funding the construction of a free medical facility in Bannu, The Toorpakai Medical Facility, for the internally displaced persons of Pakistan. I also want to fund a school that caters to residents of tribal areas and, eventually, establish sports facilities that I’d like to supervise personally. I also want to setup small businesses to help the internally displaced learn new skills and encourage economic growth in the region.

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