Ranked 49 in the world, Maria Toorpakai is Pakistan’s number one women's squash player. A proud achievement, it is just one accolade in Toorpakai's inspiring and astonishing journey.
Toorpakai grew up in conservative South Waziristan in Pakistan, where customs dictated that a woman's place was at home. Toorpakai dared to differ, masquerading as a boy so that she could pursue her sporting dream. After excelling in weightlifting, Toorpakai switched to squash, where she slowly climbed the ranks despite rising threats from fundamentalist forces.
In her autobiography, A Different Kind of Daughter, the 25-year-old Toorpakai charts out her incredible journey, which took her from the mountains of Waziristan to cosmopolitan Canada. But as she revealed in an email interview to Scroll, it's only the beginning:
from squash, do you follow any other sports? Was there any other
sport you might have chosen to play professionally?
I did compete in the boy’s weightlifting championship before squash, and won. I like watching sports, and really like tennis and soccer.
have mentioned in your autobiography about the influence Rocky Balboa has had on you. Who are your other
sporting heroes and what role have they played in your life?
I like Muhammad Ali, and tennis stars like Roger Federer and Serena Williams. I am, of course, inspired by my coach Jonathan Power, who was a world champion in squash. Squash legends like Jansher Khan and Jahangir Khan from Pakistan also inspire me. To be honest, any sportsperson who excels is inspiring. India has many wonderful athletes like Saina Nehwal, Sachin Tendulkar and many more.
you think that competing against boys and the constant jeering and the taunts you
faced in your formative years toughened you up mentally?
I was always very strong, and I never thought I was less than any boy. As with any young child who is bullied, it bothered me a lot. But I had courage and I knew I could handle it. The stronger you are, the more you can put up with.
do you spend your days in Toronto? What do you do when you crave a slice of
home? Was it difficult to adjust to life in Canada after your experiences
I have a very tough training schedule, with squash sessions the entire day. But outside of that, I really like to gain knowledge wherever I can. I read books, watch movies, and I really enjoy painting. I also like to speak with as many people as I can. I keep an open mind as much as possible and I learn so much from them. When your mind is already made up or you think you know everything, you’ll never learn. You have to go with a completely positive and clean mind – that’s when knowledge comes.
I Skype with my family on weekends. When I miss my dad, I listen to old Indian Hindi songs. He loves listening to Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi and Mukesh songs. Pashto songs remind me of Peshawar too.
Assimilating wasn’t hard at all. Canada is a beautiful country, and the people are what make it such a great place. They’re so open and friendly. No matter where you are, if the people are nice, you’ll always survive. Canadians are family to me and Canada is my second home now.
does education help in winning the battle against ultra-conservative forces in
Pakistan and Afghanistan?
Ignorance is what breeds extremism and close-mindedness. The only way we can develop as a nation, and humanity as a whole, is to make sure everyone is as educated as possible. Education brings enlightenment, knowledge breaks barriers. And when the barriers come down, we can meet more people with different opinions and move forward. Taking women as an example, we make up half the population – that is a huge resource and too good a force to leave locked up at home. More women are taking seats in Parliament, my sister for example [Ayesha Gulalai Wazir] is the youngest parliamentarian in Pakistan and fights for women’s rights. This would not have been possible without the education she received from my father.
just won silver at the South Asian Games in India. How have
your experiences of India been? Any memories that you cherish?
I like India a lot and the people are truly wonderful. There’s a strong history between our two countries and our cultures are very similar, despite the distance. So when I came to compete, it didn’t feel strange at all. When the Indian players met the Pakistani players, it felt like a family reunion. One day, I would really like to travel through India and see all the wonderful regions and incredible places.
you set your sights on any specific goals for the future?
The World Championship. Apart from squash, my aim is to eliminate extremism and terrorism and bring lasting peace by giving women, young girls and boys access to quality education, sports and skills. I wish to provide them with a platform to reach their full potential so that they inspire, enlighten and empower many others around them. I am doing this through the Maria Toorpakai Fund.
I am also learning to paint and I love movies and acting. I’d like to be in a Hollywood movie one day. I believe my voice can echo more using these mediums.