Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Maria Toorpakai, a force of nature

Speaking of uplifting and edifying (see my last post about In-Between Days), I caught, this morning, a CBC interview with Maria Toorpakai Wazir, the Pakistan-born Canada-based professional squash player, who has just published a book of her remarkable early life called A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight.
Though still only 25, Maria has already led a remarkably full and active life, chock full of incident and challenges overcome. Born in the intensely traditional and conservative region of Waziristan (a region of Pakistan near the Afghanistan border that is firmly under the repressive thumb of the Taliban), she realized at a very early age that she preferred the freedom and active life of a boy, rather than the cloistered, traditional role of a girl. At just 4 years old, she burnt all her "girly dresses", as she describes them, preferring the looser, more practical garb of a boy.
Luckily, her father, Shamsul, was also that rare thing in Waziristan, a feminist and social activist, something that Maria puts down to his brief contact with some European hippies followed by a great deal of reading and thinking. Just as he had encouraged his wife to study and then to teach, Shamsul immediately accepted Maria's youthful protest, and happily treated her as his "fifth son".
Not only was Maria a rebel, she was also incredibly active and strong, and from a young age her father encouraged her to compete in weightlifting, where she went by the name Genghis Khan. She tells tales of managing to narrowly avoid the traditional mandatory practice of naked weighing with the help of her protective brother, and she went on to win junior championships in her weight range.
It was only by chance that she then discovered squash, which she immediately took to and excelled at. However, she was not able to avoid the need to produce a birth certificate to join the squash academy, and so was forced to compete as a girl. Again she excelled, despite harassment and bullying from other players, and despite her inability to find coaches or training partners. She drove herself mercilessly, pushing her body to, and at times beyond, its limits. Much of the time, she was forced to practice alone, in her own house.
At the age of 16, she turned professional, and went on, against all the odds, to become Pakistan's No. 1 female squash player. But she and her family continued to receive threats and harassment from the local Taliban, and so she applied to train abroad, for her own safety and that of her family. After 3½ years of failure, she was finally taken on by Canadian Jonathan Power (one-time world champion, now retired from competition), and from the age of 21 she has trained at his academy right here in Toronto. Power helped her to heal various self-inflicted injuries and a nerve disorder, so that for the first time ever she was able to play the sport she loves without constant pain. She reached a highest ranking of 41st in the world, and is still 56th. She has set up a foundation, the Maria Toorpakai Foundation, to encourage families to educate girls and to allow them to play sports.
Phew! Kind of makes you feel pretty pathetic and feeble. Read the book. Listen to the interview. To listen to, she is remarkably articulate and clearly incredibly self-confident and driven, not to say aggressive. But what a story!

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