In Pakistan’s violent, lawless northwest tribal region along the Afghan border, young girls seldom leave the family home until marriage. Maria Toorpakai—whose memoir, A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight, hit bookshelves on May 3—flouted these traditions when she chopped off her hair, burned her dresses and began living as her parents’ “fifth son” at just four years old. Her parents, a tradition-defying mother who continued her education into motherhood and a free-thinking father whose outspoken support of gender equality forced him to move more than once, supported her decision, calling her “Genghis Khan” and letting her assume the identity of a boy. It is forbidden for women to be outside or play sports after the age of eight in places like Waziristan, where Toorpakai grew up, so she lived this way for nearly a decade in order to avoid being confined to her home and explore her passion for adventure and sport.
This continued until she was almost 13, when the family moved away from the tribal lands and into the city of Peshawar. Toorpakai’s father encouraged his restless daughter to channel her energy away from street-fighting into sports. She tried weightlifting first and then squash, which she was drawn to after seeing local kids play, and the connection was immediate. The desire to play competitively meant she had to “come out” as a girl, and was forced to turn over her birth certificate as part of the admissions process to a squash academy in Peshawar, revealing her true identity.
She played openly as a girl—mostly among boys—for the next four years, excelling at squash and turning pro in 2007, but her talent not only thrust national attention on Toorpakai; it also made her a target of the Taliban, who didn’t like that a girl from “their” region was playing sports so openly. Persistent threats forced her to live confined to her home for more than three years, practicing against a wall in her room and sending countless emails to schools and squash clubs around the world asking for a chance to play, desperate for an escape. In 2011, Canadian squash champion Jonathon Power heard her pleas and invited her to train in Canada.
Toorpakai, 25, now lives and trains in Toronto, working toward her goal of becoming a world squash champion. She currently ranks as Pakistan’s top female player and consistently breaks into the top 50 worldwide. A powerful voice for oppressed women worldwide and a force of change in her home community, Toorpakai is using her squash earnings to fund a hospital in northwest Pakistan.
We talked to Toorpakai about the struggles she faced chasing her dreams, finding freedom through sports and what she learned through overcoming tremendous obstacles.
What was it like growing up in Waziristan, a place often called “the most dangerous place on earth”?
These are the lawless areas and we follow our own way of living. The government cannot interfere in the local judicial system. We have elders and a huge family system, big families that all live together, and, in that sense, it’s peaceful because people do not want to attack each other because it can be brutal.
Tell me about the gender inequality women face in Pakistan.
In Waziristan, you don’t see any girls outside. But even outside Waziristan, in the big cities, you see a lot of discrimination against women. Women are very [vulnerable] in every area, including the workplace, because harassment happens everywhere. It’s not very easy for women to go to the workplace with happiness. You also see a lot of domestic violence, so she is always vulnerable in many senses. And you see a lot of acid attacks too.
What is the life of a young girl like in Waziristan?
We have very early marriages and education is considered a curse that is going to take [girls] away from Islam or destroy their family system, so the more educated the woman is, the less she will listen. And men don’t want it to be like that—men want to be in power; men want to solve every issue in the house, and they handle everything.
How did your father treat you in comparison to your brothers?
At home, my father treated me and my brothers equally and there was no injustice [there]. My father thought if a daughter and son are born from the same womb, how can they be different? There’s no difference and they should be treated equally. He let us explore our talents and let us be whoever we wanted to be.
How did your father differ from other elders in your region?
He refused to go along with society. He wanted change, and he always disputed and confronted the elders and asked for a better life for women; for daughters and girls. People attacked him and he had to escape for his life from one area to another area. To bring change, he had to start within his own family and he started educating my mom, my sister, and me.
How did you start living as a boy?
I was four years old when I wanted to be like my brothers. I didn’t want to be in girly dresses; it was so suffocating for me and I was different from girls—I didn’t want to stay home or play around them. I wanted freedom. So I burnt all my girly dresses. After that, my father realized everyone is different and he supported me. He called me his fifth son and he gave me a new name, Genghis Khan. So from that age, I grew up with that boyish identity. It helped me to explore the region and understand men’s mentality.
How did you start playing sports seriously?
By the time I was 12, I was very aggressive, very short-tempered, and my father gave me chores that would reduce my anger, like chopping wood or cleaning floors—anything to stay physically active so I would have less anger. He realized that it was important for me to channel my anger into something positive and I’d become a good person and a good human being. And that’s why he found sports for me. The first sport was weightlifting.
How did sports help you?
Sports were so much fun: people come together, it’s very entertaining and it’s such a positive way of keeping your energy. It gives you a lot of confidence and self-awareness. Through squash, I found out a lot about myself.
In what ways did sports change you?
I’m very positive and if anything happens, [I know] life is full of failures but you have to understand: you win once, but you lose a hundred times. That’s why we have to not give up: we have to continue and overcome weaknesses.
What do you hope to teach others through your experience?
I also learned, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Muslim, you’re from any other religion, or you’re from any other race, everyone comes together [in sports]. One is not superior to another; there is no such thing. You have to perform and whoever has more willpower will win. [It] is self-created stuff when we enslave other human beings, like girls back in Pakistan, and we think ‘She is my honour and we have to keep her safe and we have to protect her and then, as soon as possible, we have to get rid of her and give her away in marriage.’ We think that God wants us to enslave another person, but this is not right. We have to unlearn and relearn everything from the beginning about being a human.
You had to turn over your birth certificate when you wanted to play squash competitively. What was the experience like of revealing your identity as a girl?
When I had to present my birth certificate [to the director of squash academy in Peshawar], I had to come out as a girl. I don’t have good memories of that [time]; it’s a horrible kind of feeling. I remember every person, how they treated me, how they harassed me; I was very young, so it affected me very deep down, to my soul. But I knew I was strong.
How did you react once your squash performance got national attention and the threats from the Taliban started?
First it was society [harassing me], then I got Taliban threats after I performed really well. I confined myself to my room, not only to protect myself and my family, but also the other innocent kids who come to the squash court. If the Taliban blow a bomb, lots of kids are going to be killed, so for three-and-a-half years, I kept playing in my room against the wall. But, as I said, you fail a hundred times, but you win once, and that was in my mind and for three-and-a-half years.