When Maria Toorpakai Wazir was four, she cut her hair, dressed in her brother’s clothes, and took her own clothes into the backyard to burn them. “My father started laughing,” she says, “and said, ‘Here we go, we have a Genghis Khan in the family.’” The rest of her childhood in the Waziristan region of Pakistan was marked by fist fights, which she says is how she made friends. “I am a warrior, I was born a warrior, I will die like a warrior.”
Sounds about right for a girl who dressed as a boy in order to play the sport of squash, becoming the best female player in Pakistan, until Taliban threats forced her to leave the country in order to continue to train.
Squash is a very popular pasttime in Pakistan, and it’s fielded several of the most revered players in history, including Jahangir Khan, “considered by many to be the greatest player in the history of the game.” Both Pakistani men and women enjoy the sport, but Waziristan specifically is a “conservative” part of the country, to say the least. In Toorpakai’s home, women are not allowed to leave the house without going veiled and accompanied by a male relative, and they’re certainly not allowed to appear in public in shorts, like Toorpakai does when she plays and practices.
Nevertheless, when Toorpakai was twelve, her father decided that the best way to burn off the energy she was expending getting in fights was to enroll her in a sport, starting with weightlifting. He told her gym that she was his son, Genghis Khan. Later, when her interests turned to squash, he enrolled in a squash academy in Peshwar. It took a few months before anyone realized she was a girl, at which point the “extreme bullying” she received only pushed her to train harder. She wound up winning several championships, received an award from Pakistan’s president, and went pro.
Unfortunately, with notoriety came attention from the Taliban. Toorpakai was provided security by her country’s squash federation, but elected to quit practicing in public gyms so as not to endanger the others around her. For three and a half years, she practiced in her room, and in her spare time sent thousands of letters to squash clubs, squash academies, and colleges in Europe and America, trying to find one that would allow her to train there. Eventually, she reached Jonathan Power, a Canadian squash player who was the first North American to ranked #1 worldwide, and who had spent a lot of time playing in Pakistan with Pakistani players. He accepted Toorpakai as a student and she now lives and trains in Toronto.
Listen, I tried to summarize this story pretty well, but virtually every part of it is badass. She’s even getting TEDxTeen talk. You can read more at the BBC.