Pakistani Squash champion living in Toronto, free from Taliban Threat

Listen to Maria Toorpakai interview on CBC with AnnaMaria Trimonti

Transcript of the Interview May 11, 2016

Squash champion Maria Toorpakai disguised herself as a boy to play sports in Pakistan

Guests: Maria Toorpakai

ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Hello, I’m Anna Maria Tremonti and this is The Current.

AMT: That is Canadian squash pro Jonathon Power training Pakistan women’s champion, Maria Toorpakai captured by HBOsports in 2013. It’s been a long journey from Pakistan to Toronto for the elite athlete. When Maria Toorpakai was a young girl in south Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal lands, she longed to play sports with the boys, but in a fundamentalist part of Pakistan her dream could have easily led to death. Instead Maria Toorpakai overcame restrictions on girls and women by disguising herself and living publicly as a boy. She went on to become Pakistan’s number one ranked female squash player. She tells her story in a book, A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight. Maria Toorpakai joins me in our Toronto studio. Hi.


AMT: [laughs] I can hear the force of that ball just without even seeing anything.


AMT: Do you spend a lot of time with Jonathon?


AMT: Learning and improving all the time, yes?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Oh, definitely.

AMT: When you were growing up, how did you know that you were different from other girls in your community?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: You know, I was really strong and I had a lot of energy. I was very aggressive and also you see a lot of girls, you know, there is very limited space for them. From a young age they have to stay home, not allowed to go outside that far but when you see guys, they have more space, a more unlimited area to play and hang out and I see those differences, and then I see guys have more happiness and good energy and the girls are like dull, just sitting there and just working and serving the families. From a young age, they are covering themselves from five or six years old and they don’t know why they are doing it but they are told to do it and also, I have to look after their siblings. So I just realized it’s more fun as a boy and that’s when I was four-and-a-half I realized that and the only way to get into the group of boys and play freely outside, I had to burn all my girly dresses and that was a turning point.

AMT: Let’s talk about that because you were just four-and-a-half. Tell us what you did.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: So my dad and mom, actually they were outside, they were gone somewhere and when they came home, they found me by the pile of fire in the backyard, and I was standing in my brother’s clothes and my dad just looked at me and he kept staring at me and the fire and he could see that it was all the dresses that I had.

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AMT: So you went and you took every dress you had, you were a little girl, you had beautiful dresses, they had beautiful thread on them, they had little pearls and little sequins on them and you put them all in a pile?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Yeah, I did. I liked more simple clothes like boys and have a more loose clothing style.

AMT: And so you drag out the kerosene and you—

MARIA TOORPAKAI: I did that and I knew where my mom cooks and where is the fire, so I managed to burn all my clothes.

AMT: You also cut your hair. You had long hair.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: I did [laughs]. I tried and it tuned out really bad but then my father took me to a barber.

AMT: But to do that at four-and-a-half, you had a feeling internally that you just didn’t want to be constricted by the life of a little girl. Already you knew that.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Yeah, well you know, I just could see that happiness outside and to get there I just couldn’t stop myself from burning the clothes. There was just so much passion just to do it and that’s why I did it. My father just realized that you know, I’m different and he called me his fifth son and from that day I grew up with Ghengis Khan name.

AMT: So tell me about the part of Pakistan where you’re from, Waziristan.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: This area had become very violent with time and it became a help to terrorist organizations. The problem is that we never allowed ourselves to be exposed to the outside world, or get education, or get any information. People do not watch TV or radio– men do that but women, they’re not allowed to do anything like that.

AMT: It’s a very conservative, traditional society.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Your entire life, you would see women live there in the house and they shouldn’t be heard outside and if they are seen outside, it should be with the husband, but without a husband, it can get really upsetting among the families. And if she is found guilty of doing something wrong, she is shot on place and I’ve seen some girls who didn’t want to marry; some girls who didn’t want to go for the arranged marriage; I’ve seen girls who want to go to school, but it never happened because the parents were not supportive because of the society and because of the traditions that keep going for centuries. It was all about honour and respect and it is a very male dominated society so, for me, three things are very important: property, land and women. They have to protect that, they will die for that, or kill people for that.

AMT: And into this very traditional society is your father. What is your father’s perspective on women’s rights?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: My father, when he was young he went to a different city he met some hippies out there. He watched some Hollywood movies with them like Sean Connery or Elvis Presley, and those hippies were from Europe and different places and they became really good friends. Then my father researched things, learned thing, books, you know and he kind of realized that what we are doing is not the right path. We have to change in a certain way, and it is taking all the things that we are doing as we are going backwards. So, he started doing the things that were completely the opposite to this society and he found peace in that. He kept telling people that he started doing poetry, revolutionary poetry, and telling people about women’s rights, humanity, and what we can do better for our culture and society. Lots of elders and people became really against him when he was talking. They thought he was talking against Islam and religion so they outcast him. He ran, he escaped from them. Many people started stoning him, put him in a mental jail once, no twice, and he was also tied up without clothes in a mud room for weeks.

AMT: So your mother is a very special person as well. Tell us about her.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: I feel that my mom and dad coming together was kind of written I think, because my mom also was very hard working, she always loved to get education and when she was young, she was the only one in her family that got education. She used to walk miles on foot to the school, get there and come back, and there used to be sometimes one bus so if you miss that, you miss it and you have to walk, so it was like that.

AMT: And of course, as we go on in your story, your mom is teaching in schools in Waziristan and these are the very schools that the Taliban end up attacking and bombing. They are very much against women teaching and they’re very much against girls going to those schools, so to be the daughter of two people like that in that society is very different.

MARIUA TOORPAKAI: Yes. The thing is, Taliban have the same mentality as our people have and that’s very easy for the Taliban to stay there, live there, and rule and recruit people. That’s why it’s a very dangerous place.

AMT: Well and you know, you talk about the danger and violence against girls and women; this is not an abstract idea for you. You have instances in the book where you are attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. Tell us what you went through.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: I was young and some guys are playing volleyball and a lot of men they all look the same and they look like mullahs and some of them were mullahs from the mosque, but they were playing this volleyball and then I really want to touch the ball. I went out and when I touched the ball, they actually saw me and they got really angry.

AMT: You actually—


AMT: The ball came toward you. You were how old?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: I was four, I think.

AMT: So you wanted to touch the ball but you actually spiked it back to them.


AMT: And when you did that, what happened?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Well, the guy came to me and looked at me and I had a girly dress and hair, but then this man when he came to me, he hit me really badly on my face. As a child, it was very hard for me—

AMT: He slapped you really hard?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Yes, it was really hard for me.

AMT: More than once. He held your face and your hands and he slapped you.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Yes, and they were laughing, too. They were smiling and they were slapping and they were like, what are you doing here? You go now. You go home, and then they hit me again and again. For them it was fun.

AMT: So, for the people who did that because they were angry at you for not being like a traditional girl, you knew the dangers of that as you got older and yet you really still wanted to play with the boys. Why?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Well, I’ll tell you. In Waziristan, what happened before, I started dressing up like guys. It was also because of my dad what the reaction was from people towards me, towards my siblings, or to my dad, that’s why we kept moving from area to area. As a boy—people didn’t know I was a girl after that—

AMT: How did you do that? How did you disguise yourself?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: I looked very, if you look at the picture then, I do not look like a girl in there. I was very strong and very masculine, and powerful, and aggressive, too, and I thought the more angry you are, the more you look like a man [giggles], all those kinds of things. I tried to be like a man, and I became one of them. I started playing sports, and people came to know I was a girl because I was in that age where girls change physically, so it was not easy to hide myself anymore.

AMT: Tell us about Ghengis Khan.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: I had a lot of fun in tribal areas as a boy, as a Ghengis Khan.

AMT: That’s what you called yourself?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Yes. And I was the strongest of boys. I was challenging all the time and I was always found in the middle of fights.

AMT: At one point you write that you would leap from one building to the other in a compound because you could. You literally had that much energy to run and jump. You’d leap from compound to compound to compound.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Trust me. I have climbed the mountains, I have climbed the trees, I have climbed, in one place we used to live, like a city kind of area, so we used to climb on the pipes that go up to the top of the building. I used to climb through those pipes and then jump from the roof to the roof, so it was like so much energy [giggles].

AMT: Well, you actually competed against boys in weightlifting as Ghengis Khan.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Yeah, yeah I did. The first sport was weightlifting for me and I was really strong, so after a couple of months I went to a weightlifting championship with all the boys, with a group of boys. We lived in the same room, we were lying down in a row and my brother was there to protect me so we kind of worked around the situation.

AMT: And they never figured it out?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: One time we got stuck a little bit. I thought that when I saw that all the boys had to take off their clothes and they have to weigh their body in order to participate, under 50 kilograms, under 70 kilograms, so all the boys were competing accordingly and when I saw that, I told my brother there is something wrong, we should do something about it, and he was worried about that, too. Then he, we thought we would make a plan. First, we went and said he’s not going to do it and he refused. There was another guy who was really shy, my brother got him on board too, and he said, are you going to go after me? So, my brother refused, and he refused and I refused. I said I was very shy, too [laughs]. The committee, the board there, they kept looking at us and said okay, let them do it with clothes, and that’s how we participated in the competition.

AMT: How did you become a squash player?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: During the weightlifting, when I had break time, I used to go to this squash court and I used to see the boys playing and it looked like it was really a lot of fun to me, hitting the ball. And you just heard that, how amazing it is by just by listening to the sound of the ball. So, it was so much fun, but as soon as I start leaving the squash court and go back to the weightlifting, I just felt so alone and it was boring because, especially after winning that weightlifting championship, I saw nothing else coming up and I was looking for a challenge. I’m lifting weights and I don’t see anything after that, but in squash, I think there are so many people and so much fun. I went to my dad and said I want to play squash and he actually really liked my idea because after weightlifting, he found me more going outside and staying there and walking like a body builder and fighting and stuff. He found me more in the middle of fights so he realized it is a really good idea to put her in squash and it will help her reduce her anger and she will start hitting a ball instead of fighting people.

AMT: Did you compete against boys as Ghengis Khan at first with squash?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: My dad and I tried to introduce myself as a Ghengis Khan, but that was a proper squash academy, so I had to present my birth certificate to enroll, and that’s how I had no option but to come out as Maria Toorpakai.

AMT: And how did the revelation that you were actually Maria, and not Ghengis Khan, sit with the others?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Because of squash, I got into, I came into the, in the light, you know–

AMT: The spotlight.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: The spotlight. But then, I come from the same tribe, which is half the Taliban and the Taliban are, you know you would hardly recognize who is Taliban and who is not because everyone looks the same and everyone has the same ideology, and then they found out I am their own blood, their own girl is doing such a shameful thing playing in skirts and shorts and out there in front of people without any scarf playing squash. Because of them, we got threats right away. My mom, my dad, everyone got the threats of death and they asked my father to relearn Islam, I have to stop playing squash as soon as possible, and they do not want to see anyone from my family out there, otherwise they will kill us. When the Taliban threatened us, I was still—it was something that was real and nobody could just protect themselves, it wasn’t safe anymore. In the beginning we tried to change the number plates of the car, going out at different times. There was a squash court actually, that I found which was abandoned, it was closed for ages and—

AMT: An outdoor court?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Yes. It had this lock which was rusted and me and my brother broke the lock and went inside. The floor was really bad. It was like half of the squash court was broken, so the side wall was not there. We used to play in the middle, we cleaned inside, we put the lines in there, and played in that specific spot on the squash court at nighttime.

AMT: Where no one could find you.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: I used to go at 11 pm, yes.

AMT: So, clearly you were devoted to squash but I want to ask you, how long have you been in Toronto now?


AMT: You describe those moments when you have to be hyper-aware for your own safety in Peshawar. When you walk down the streets in Toronto today, what do you think of the difference?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: I am not afraid. I am not bullied. I can be who I am. There is so much freedom, I’m not expecting anything bad, you know? All of my expectations are good and positive, while in Peshawar, I have to plan ahead of time how am I going to walk, where am I going to go, what am I going to do, all different things. Your brain would blow up with all those measurements, but here I just go with– I have no plan, I just go, have fun, I know everything is all right.

AMT: So how did you end up leaving Pakistan and coming to Toronto?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: In 2007, when I got threats from Taliban and I said it was real and I had to make a decision about whether I wanted to play squash or not. But, looking at all the sacrifices that my parents have done for us and I don’t want my parents to lose their child at the end, I don’t want that in the end for them. Also, it would be a very dishonourable thing if my father lost a daughter, kidnapped by Taliban. And Taliban tortures people to the extreme. I have heard, I have seen people, some of our friends, I mean some of the people we knew, not friends, some of the people we knew, they were kidnapped and then we heard and we saw the pictures in the newspaper when their bodies were thrown into the market and they had no limbs and no eyes and no ears, so you can see how they were tortured. I had to make a decision. A few times, I used to think of having a cyanide pill, or maybe have a gun, so if they take me down, I take them down with me. One good person, but many bad people [nervous laughter], I take them. I never did that.

AMT: Instead, you sent emails out.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Instead, I stopped going out. For three and a half years, I stayed home and I kept playing squash in my room against my bedroom wall. I realized, my father realized, that I am not going to give up on squash, I really love it. He told me that, you know, you should leave the country. That’s the only way for you to play squash. Then I started emailing all over the world, offering them my service as a part-time coach, asking them for a place where I could train myself, for peace of mind. After three and a half years, I got a message and that was Jonathon Power. He sent me a message, it was 7 pm, I think. I got really excited, it was an unbelievable thing to message that I am Jonathon Power and I will train you and make you a champion.

AMT: Who is Jonathon Power?

MARUA TOORPAKAI: He is a world champion [laughs]. He is from Canada and he’s a unique player in the world.

AMT: And he answered your email?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: He answered my email after three and half years, that was the only reply I got.

AMT: And he just kept training, so you’ve been training for five years with him?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: He was really excited when he saw me, like I am really good, but then he realized that I’m really injured. My nervous system was really disturbed, and I was getting a lot of injuries like muscular pains, so he kind of got me a lot of doctors and that was the first time I have seen a doctor because in my life, I had never been to a doctor. He took me to doctors and it took almost three years to feel like a human. I have not felt like a human before, I was in so much pain.

AMT: So what lessons do you hope boys and girls in Pakistan will take from your experience?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: I think the strongest man is who empowers a girl, a woman, and the strongest woman always respects a man. It’s a mutual thing and you have to come together and save the world.

AMT: Maria, you have an amazing story. Thank you for coming in.


AMT: Maria Toorpakai is the author of A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight. She joined us in our Toronto studio. That’s our program for today. We’re going to give today’s last word to the Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons with a message firefighters would surely endorse. I’m Anna Maria Tremonti, thanks for listening to The Current.


On Thursday, the city of Edmonton impose da complete fire ban, that’s a ban on open fires. I’m not sure what part of this Edmonton you don’t understand because between Thursday and Sunday, city fire crews had to respond to 110 complaints of backyard open fire pits. That’s in addition to responding to 217 brush and grass fires, all of which were caused by human beings. So, I know I’m not your mother, well unless you’re my kid watching, but think of me as Edmonton’s official Jewish mother and I’m going to make this very simple for you: do not start any fires. Do not have a fire pit this week. Do not go to the park and have a wiener roast. Do not throw your cigarette butts out the window. Do not throw your roach clips into the bush. Capisce? Is this plain? Don’t start any fires, because quite frankly, The Edmonton Fire Department has enough to do fires here and in Fort McMurray without cleaning up after your mistakes. This is been a Paula Simon’s Jewish mother public service announcement.

Categories: Canada, The Muslim Times

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