A brave, determined woman, Maria Toorpakai Wazir was hounded out of her homeland in northwest Pakistan by the Taliban, who repeatedly threatened to kill her simply because she dared to play squash.
Her parents, both teachers, were also threatened, but they too were brave, determined, and wise. Before she turned 5, Maria longed to escape from the oppression of restrictive female clothing and a cloistered existence. She cut her hair, burned it with her clothes, and donned her brother’s shorts and T-shirt so she could be free to go outdoors and join the boys playing soccer.
Her father rechristened her Genghis Khan, and she thrived living as a boy—running free, hopping from rooftop to rooftop, beating boys who dared to challenge her, and becoming a prize-winning weightlifter.
Eventually, she knew, she would need to reveal her gender. An Air Force man who ran the squash academy agreed to enroll her as Maria, the only girl. There she won over and over, eventually at a national tournament for girls under 13.
A photo taken of Maria with Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf drew the attention of the Taliban, both because Musharraf was an enemy and because Maria dared to play sports. Constantly watched by vile men, she received threatening letters and feared her beloved squash academy would be bombed, as were so many other places in Peshawar.
Her parents’ schools were bombed, especially those her mother established for girls. Eventually the harassment became too much to endure. She left for a squash tournament in Kuala Lumpur but was stricken by dengue fever, coming within a whisker of death.
Next she won the Liberty Bell tournament in Philadelphia, Pa., and in 2011 she moved to Toronto to train with two-time world squash champion, Jonathan Power.
Today Maria is ranked among the top 50 squash players in the world. She has established the Maria Toorpakai Fund to encourage girls to defy oppression to gain an education and play sports.
Hers is an amazing story, not only because of her incredible determination and success, but also because of the insight it gives into the cruelty of the Taliban. (Twelve)