Maria Toorpakai Wazir, sometimes known simply as Maria Toorpakai, is a native of South Waziristan, Pakistan — a Taliban-controlled area of the country where even the idea of women participating in sports is decried as un-Islamic. In a place where girls rarely leave their homes — and certainly not without a male to accompany them, Maria Toorpakai and her parents risked their lives to do what many of us would take for granted — the freedom to play squash.
Maria released her autobiography, A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight, in 2016, which tells of her journey to becoming a professional athlete by disguising herself as a boy in order to train, to compete in tournaments, and even to attend school in her native Waziristan.
Her story is a strong one: a young girl, inspired by her love of the game of squash, fought against the gender restrictions of both her society and the Taliban in order to play the game, compete in real tournaments, attend school, and rise to the professional levels of squash.
Wazier was born on November 22nd, 1990 in South Waziristan, Pakistan. As Pakistan’s greatest ever female player, Maria earned her status as a professional squash player in 2006, at the age of only 16. This is even more incredible than the typical squash player turning pro, because Maria had to overcome extreme obstacles in order to turn pro, be able to compete on the world stage, and make a life in the sport of squash for herself.
As a trailblazer, this Pakistani powerhouse fought against both gender barricades from her hometown’s Islamic beliefs, as well as Talibani beliefs — her hometown is overcome by the Taliban, who impose their strict codes upon residents through the threat of violence and death.
Wazier succeeded in tearing down those obstacles by posing as a boy in order to go to school in her town, to compete in sporting events in her younger days, and to learn the game of squash. With the support of her parents, Maria and her family defied Taliban threats and began to compete against almost overwhelming and universal hostility — and she prevailed. She is now the top ranked female player in Pakistan, has earned the respect of millions, is an incredible role model for other young girls in Pakistan, and is helping to change the minds of many from her hometown and country regarding women in sports.
The Road to Success
Her determination and challenges she faced in her childhood and teen years were serious — with the threat of violence at every turn and hostility, Maria disguised herself as a boy in order to not only learn her favorite sport — which she excelled at — but to educate herself in the face of a male-dominated and conservative country who did not want her to do any of these things. In her culture, women do not have the right to education or the right to play sports.
What she states as the best decision she ever made, Maria burned her dresses, cut her hair short, and wore her brother’s clothing so that she could go outside to play (which is forbidden for females in this area of Pakistan). Wazir said that she felt different — with one sister and four brothers, Maria felt that she had the skill and power that was stronger than her older brother. She would see boys outdoors playing and having fun and wanted to participate. This was when she began to disguise herself as a boy in order to play, learn, and live her life.
This idea worked well, and Maria began to learn squash, then began to compete as a child, and then — in 2006, she reached the status of a professional and international squash player by age 16. Taking her life by the reigns, Maria and her supportive family are true progressives in the conservative and male-dominated area of Pakistan; and they broke down barriers with blood, sweat, and tears, in order to achieve greatness.
As PSA Deputy Chairman Ashley Bernhard stated, “Maria is an extraordinary role-model not just for women in sport but for all women around the world […] Her story is one of incredible bravery and determination and to even begin to imagine the challenges and threats that she has overcome in order to pursue her dream is truly inspiring.”
Not only has Wazier shared her story in her autobiography, but she has spoken at the United Nation’s Women’s International Forum at the UN Headquarters in New York CIty — you can view the entire lecture at the following link, courtesy of the UN Web TV.
It Wasn’t Easy
Her journey is already inspiring enough, but the story does not end there. There were real trials and tribulations to overcome as Maria began getting involved in squash clubs and competing. Her father is named Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, and is a tribal elder in Waziristan. Very unusual for this area of Pakistan and as a tribal elder, Shamsul Qayyum is a strong advocate for equal rights for women and he recognized in his daughter the strength to succeed in an area that denies much to women.
He encouraged Maria to take interest in her first sport — weightlifting. Disguised as a boy, Maria participated in this and more. Her father’s advocating for equal rights also helped her sister, Ayesha Gulalai Wazir, who is now a Pakistani politician and a member of the national assembly. It is clear that with a change in thinking among men in Pakistan, that women could have the real opportunity to be allowed to be themselves and to succeed.
Maria’s father nicknamed her “Changez Khan,” after Genghis Khan, infamous warlord of Mongolia.
After trying out weight lifting and other sports denied to women, Maria finally discovered that she had a real talent for squash. After moving to Peshawar, Pakistan, the local squash club requested a birth certificate — and Maria was exposed as a girl.
Thankfully, in non-tribal areas of Pakistan, squash is very popular and women as well as men play the game. However, in conservative tribal areas like Waziristan, it is not just rejected or unheard of — it is extremely taboo.
However, Maria Toorpakai Wazir continued competing in areas where men and women played squash. By the time she was 16, she had won the bronze at the world junior championships — but this success also attracted some unwelcome attention.
Her father had begun receiving threats from his tribe in Waziristan because Maria was wearing shorts and not wearing a veil. In fact, despite being far away not a part of her life anymore, the tribe in Waziristan continued to threaten her and her family. They promised “dire consequences” if Maria did not give up squash and the sport because they believed it was un-Islamic and against their tribal traditions.
Wazir did say that she was afraid of these threats — not afraid for herself but for her fellow players on the squash court. She believed that if her tribe followed through with their threats that the court could be blown up or people would die.
Despite her worries, Maria looked on the positive effect it was having on her life and had the strength to continue — “It was a strange thing for people to accept a girl playing sport. I stuck out and people started noticing that. That’s when I understood that being a girl in a society like this isn’t easy.”
What Maria did next was she began to email universities, academies, and squash clubs around the world, asking for help. Her break came when a Canadian former world No.1, Jonathan Power, invited Maria to train in Canada. At the age of 20, Maria left Pakistan to practice and hone her squash skills in Canada.
While she can no longer play in Pakistan, she was still Pakistan’s top-ranked player and was an inspiration to so many. She trained and lived in Toronto for years under the professional circuit in Canada, competing in tournaments and winning trophies around the globe with Coach Jonathan Power at her side.
Where She is Now
Maria Toorpakai Wazir has ranked higher on the international squash players ranking, but as of March, 2017, Wazier is ranked 105th in the world, which is still an accomplishment. Last year she was ranked 66th in the world. Her highest WR was No.41 in December of 2012.
In late 2016/early 2017, Maria moved back to Peshawar, Pakistan. With one of the lowest rates of gender equality in the world, Wazir hopes to inspire other young women there to pursue their dreams in the face of hostility and a male-dominated culture.
You can view the documentary, “Girl Unbound,” which will screen at the Barbican in London on March 15th, 2017. This film was seen at the Toronto Film Festival and is a testament to Maria Toorpakai Wazir’s strength and her journey to succeed.
This documentary charts her journey from a homeland that was dubbed the “most dangerous place on Earth,” due to the struggle with Islamic extremism, to representing Pakistan on the national team.
PSA Stats and Information
- PSA Ranking: 105 (as of March 6, 2017)
- Joined PSA: 2006
- Coach: Jonathan Power
- Club: National Squash Academy
- Racket Sponsor: Harrow
- Shoe Sponsor: Asics
- String Sponsor: Harrow
- Clothing Sponsor: Harrow
- Plays: Left-Handed
- Highest WR: 41 (Dec, 2012)
- Height: 167cm
- Weight: 71kg
- Interests: Music, Painting
Accomplishments and Latest Events
- January 2012: 1st Pakistan-born woman to win tour event at Liberty Bell Open
- March 2017: Windy City Open — Reached 1st Qualifying Round
- Nov 2016: Monte Carlo Classic — Reached 1st Qualifying Round
- Nov 2016: Simon Warder Memorial Prostate Cancer Tournament — Reached Quarter-Finals
- Nov 2016: Nicola Wealth Open — Reached 1st Round
- Oct 2016: Granite Open — Reached Quarter Finals
- Oct 2016: Carol Weymuller Open — Reached 1st Qualifying Round
- Sep 2016: NASH Cup — Reached Quarter Finals
- Feb 2016: Bahria Town International — Reached Semi-Finals
- Feb 2016: South Asian Games Team Championship
- Feb 2016: South Asian Games — Runner-up
- Jan 2016: Granite Open — Reached Qualifying Finals
Between 2004 and 2015, Wazir took part in 86 additional events in squash.