Meet Pakistan’s Maria Toorpakai Wazir Who Disguised As A Boy To Play Squash

Maria Toorpakai Wazir
Growing up in Pakistan’s conservative region of Waziristan at the Pak-Afghan border, Maria Toorpakai Wazir often wondered about the conservatism that existed around her. She wondered why she never saw girls playing outside. As a girl who wanted to try all sorts of games, Wazir’s chances of a sporting career were bleak. It bothered her to witness how the rules for women were not only different but also oppressive, more so because she belonged to a family where her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, held progressive views.

Her struggle to pursue sports only grew, as did her age. After an uphill struggle to overcome the Taliban’s opposition, several moves across the country and undeterred support from her parents, she entered sports – disguised as a boy – and eventually dropped the guard at 16 after she was recognised by the government as a professional squash player.

Maria Toorpakai Wazir, a regular tribal girl who was once unable to leave her house, went on to professionally play a sport which was considered unconventional because of her gender. She is now a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Women in Sports Commission (IOC). Wazir did not stop just there as today she is a mentor to thousands of young girls who wish to play sports.

In an interview with SheThePeople.TV, Maria Toorpakai Wazir spoke about her childhood, why she chose squash, how she stood up against the Taliban, her first one of it’s kind of sports school at the Pak-Afghan border, her quest to make sports accessible to girls, and why peace and equality matter the most today.

Entry into the world of Squash

Squash saved Maria Toorpakai Wazir in more ways than one. Where she came from, it was illegal for women to go anywhere without a male companion, let alone play sports. Wazir then entered sports disguised as a boy. She took this decision when she was just a four-year-old kid who burned her dresses, wore her brother’s clothes and chopped off her hair because she wanted to play outside as all children did; in her case, as all boys did. The family soon moved to the city of Peshawar which held more opportunities. “While I was homeschooled, my father empowered me to slide into sports because he wanted me to channel my energy productively. He once took me to the stadium and found me a coach. I started my sporting career not with squash but with weightlifting. It was during that time when I would sneak out during break time and notice how the squash team would play. It fascinated me so much that I had myself enrolled in squash classes,” she recalled.

Wazir dressed up as a boy during the first twelve years of her life to be free and compete, winning the all-Pakistan U-16 boys weightlifting championship in Lahore under the name Changez Khan. She then switched to squash as a teenager and became Pakistan’s unstoppable national champion in a short period and has since earned several medals at international squash competitions. “Competing professionally made me more noticeable as a female athlete. I could pass as a boy for a time, but when I applied to join a team operated by the Pakistan Air Force, members of the squash community discovered my actual gender,” she shared.

She had to rapidly learn how to negotiate difficult demands both on and off the court in a place where sending a girl to school is considered disgraceful, and the concept of girls participating in sports was a huge taboo.

Hearing Wazir talk about her experience is both interesting and eye-opening, but maybe not surprising. In her early years, she was enjoying life as a boy and was taken aback by the unexpected responsibility of being girl later on. Wazir faced bullying inside ad outside the community for a long time post her revelation. “I wondered what was the difference? I was the same person, playing well. Why would they treat me differently now even if they discovered I am a girl? People were not angry post my reveal because I hid my identity, they were angry because I decided to continue playing regardless of gender.

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Maria Toorpakai Wazir

Squash Player Maria Toorpakai Wazir during one of her games | Photo credit: Maria Toorpakai

The fight against the Taliban

The battle Wazir fought for the sake of her passion was long and hard. Shortly after she started getting recognised as a female athlete, she started receiving threats from the Taliban. They declared sport un-Islamic and against tribal traditions for women. “A Pashtun girl, playing in shorts and bringing shame to her clan, was something that the Taliban did not want in the stadium. Nevertheless, I played,” she recalled. Throughout it all, Wazir was backed by her family and the Pakistani squash federation, which also provided with security for her matches. 

“Despite opposition from the South Waziristan community, my father encouraged me to continue. However, as the threats increased, I realised that continuing to play squash would endanger my competitors and other citizens. I stopped training, only being able to practise in secret by hitting the ball against my bedroom wall. I spent the following few years trying to find a way out of the nation, confined to my family’s house. I applied to sports teams in the United States and Canada, hoping to get back into the game.” In 2011, former world champion squash player Jonathon Power replied to her, inviting her to move to Toronto, Canada and train with him. Wazir left for Canada and continued her dream. 

Wazir comes from a family where gender was never a criteria to determine opportunities that children may get. Her mother has always been an educator, who works as a school principal teaching kids at the Pak-Afghan border. Her sister pursued politics and has vocally spoken up against the harassment that she faced in her political career. Despite endless venomous campaigns against the family concerning the two sisters, the family stood together like a rock and defied all odds.

The Maria Toorpakai Wazir Foundation

Considering how sports can play a revolutionary change in an individual’s life, Wazir came up with a foundation plan to help support others seeking to play sports professionally. “I feel sports can play a huge role in an individual’s life. The more we play sports more we will be away from negativity. Kids in Pakistan, or anywhere for that matter, should be playing more sports and pursuing education in healthcare and technology but they are not focused on that.”

MTF envisions a world where girls get equal opportunities and fair chances to realise their full potential. Wazir is now starting The Toorpakai Sports School with an astounding vision featuring state-of-the-art facilities. “With the pandemic enabling us to look deeper at how we teach our kids today, I believe TSS will help visualise the society to put more effort into teaching awareness to young girls through sports alongside quality education,” she shared.

​​As per Wazir, “For decades now, I was the only known sportswoman coming from the Pashtun belt, and the recent picture of a girl kicking football on a field in Waziristan is the change I have waited for so long. I want to work for every young girl out there who cannot dream to play because the conservatism in her area doesn’t give her permission to.

Maria Toorpakai Wazir

Squash Player Maria Toorpakai Wazir at the Pak-Afghan border | Photo credit: Maria Toorpakai Foundation

Women in sports and stigmas attached

Wazir feels that there are several underlying similarities in our developing world nations. She says instead of focusing on trivial issues, it’s important for nations like India and Pakistan to focus on equality and development in the field of sports. “I talk about people, not about governments. I would only say let’s acknowledge the beauty in each other, that’s how we’ll grow as nations. I hope more people understand that honour doesn’t lie in domination but in empowering one another and that’s what bravery is all about – to stand up for one another. It’s disturbing to see that, even now, violence against women is considered a form of bravery by some people,” she added.

Recently, Wazir came across a man who heard about her event for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. He suggested that she wear a scarf so that people would trust her more. “I replied: Can’t they trust my honesty?” Wazir says to bring a change of acceptance in society, she will first have to stand for her truth and then lead by example. “See, now, not just playing sports is all we have to stand up for right? It’s a collective fight to just be who we want to to be, with or without the scarf,” she concluded.