Born in Waziristan, Pakistan, a remote region commonly referred to as the “most dangerous place on earth.” Girls rarely go to school and certainly don’t place sports. But Maria Toorpakai Wazir grew up differently from other girls. At the age of four, she burnt all of her dresses, cut her hair, put on her brother’s clothes and began to live life as a boy. Maria’s father, a strong advocate for equal rights and opportunities for men and women, pushed tradition aside and allowed Maria to live disguised in order to flourish as an athlete. By 12 years old, still disguised as a boy, Maria was ranked #2 in all of Pakistan for weightlifting in the junior division. Soon after she discovered her passion for squash. When the local squash academy in Peshawar required a birth certificate, her true identity as a girl was revealed. Her family received death threats from the Taliban and it was no longer safe for Maria to compete – she couldn’t even leave her family’s home. But this did not stop her from pursuing her dream.
She sent thousands of emails to people around the world asking for help to leave Pakistan. One day her prayer was answered and Jonathon Power, former World No. 1 squash player, asked her to come to Toronto and train with him. After moving to Canada to train, Maria is now ranked as the No. 47 squash player in the world. Maria shared her humbling story with us.
How did you discover your passion for squash?
It all happened accidentally. I’m from a tribal area of Pakistan where women’s education is not considered proper so becoming a professional athlete or even playing sports is not even a question for girls. So, I think I’m very lucky that I play sports today and I consider it a miracle. With my father’s help, I decided to live like a boy. I burned all of my girly clothes, cut my hair and from that day on my father named me ‘Genghis Khan’. The decision to live as a boy allowed me to discover opportunities otherwise not possible and let squash become my calling.
Tell me about your childhood and your surroundings growing up. What was it like being a girl in your community?
Pakistan is a very diverse and colorful country. In the cities, there is a lot of progress. Girls go to school, they become doctors and lawyers but as soon as you enter the rural areas women are treated differently. Education for women is considered a ‘waste of time’ and ‘derails women’ from the right path.
What did you learn about ambition and equality from your family and how has that influenced you?
Well, my father is a deep thinker and very open minded. He’s always believed in equality, women’s rights and education, which is why I am the way I am today. My mom and dad both worked so hard to educate us in the best possible way.
When confined to your home for over three years, did you ever have moments you thought about giving up on your dream to play squash?
No, I didn’t think about giving up. I knew that I had all the support I needed to keep going and fight against the situation. When you don’t give up, something great will happen – I believe in that. You will find a way if you don’t give up.
I actually found a way to keep playing in my room against the bedroom wall and I think today I have the best hitting! Everybody asks, “Who taught you to play?” and “How can you flick a shot with such a small swing?” I tell them it’s because I was playing in my room for three years.
Describe your experience leaving Pakistan to play squash in the United States and Canada.
I came to the United States by myself with a one-way ticket and a few hundred bucks. I was ready to sleep on the road or on benches outside to make my dreams happen. It was scary being a girl coming all the way from one part of the world to another and I was worried about how I would be treated as a Muslim in these foreign countries. But my mom and dad reminded me that there are good people everywhere and that everything would be fine.
I learned so much from the people in the United States and Canada. They treated me with love and respect and became like a family to me. All of my fears disappeared and I realized we are all human and fear only happens because we are so far away from each other.
Last year you released a book titled A Different Kind of Daughter. What did you learn about yourself while working on this book?
In the beginning of my journey, nobody knew about my story because I didn’t publically talk about it in Pakistan. One day I was talking with a fellow squash player who is also a journalist. She published my story in Canada’s Globa and Mail and soon everybody started reaching out to me! It became very clear that sharing my story was important.
I want to use my story to reach back out to more and more people, especially those suffering in the areas known only for terrorism and extremism because those people are isolated from the rest of the world. I want to give them all opportunities, like sports, education, and healthcare so they can be known as active citizens of the world.
What role can sports play in helping to change what’s going on in the world?
As humans, we have brains and bodies. If you reject the brain and only focus on the body, that’s not so good and if you focus on the brain and reject the body, that’s not so good either. So, you have to keep both brain and body together. Pope Francis believes in the power of sports and he says the way you try hard in sports, try in life. It will bring peace to the world. I agree wholeheartedly with this. Sports can bring nations and continents together.
Why is it important for all women to Embrace Ambition?
For women to know that their life is important and start thinking about themselves, their ambitions and goals first. When women know this, I think it will help all of humanity.
What advice do you have for women trying to achieve their dreams?
I have seen women rise above cultural restrictions and in the end strengthen society despite the odds. So remember, women are as strong as men and can do whatever they want. Life is yours and only yours, you have the right to choose your own future.