Maria Toorpakai Wazir grew up in the Waziristan region of Pakistan, a place where girls were not allowed to play sports and were expected to cover up their bodies, writes the BBC. But Maria was determined to break through these barriers and with the support of her father began weightlifting and later playing squash. Today she is thousands of miles away from home in Toronto, training with former professional squash player Jonathon Power.
Playing squash as a young girl, Maria had to disguise herself as a boy to be taken seriously. She cut her hair and began wearing shorts, a brave move for a girl living in a conservative Muslim society. “When people saw Maria and realized that she did not wear a veil and that she played squash wearing shorts, they were shocked. They said she had brought dishonor to our tribe,” Maria’s father told the BBC World Service.
However, Maria was determined to follow her dreams and began to win national junior championships. She turned professional in 2006, but the extra attention created an unstable and dangerous environment for her family. Maria’s father found a letter on his car saying that he must stop his daughter from playing squash as it was “un-Islamic and against tribal traditions,” writes BBC World Service. “They told my father they would kill us,” Maria told the Globe and Mail, “because as girls we bring dishonor to the family by going to school and playing sports.”
Maria realized that if she wanted to continue playing she would have to leave home. Her father supported her decision, telling her “if you want to play squash just go out from this country and never come back,” reports Aljazeera. When Power saw the email from the young Pakistani woman he decided to invite Maria to work in the squash academy he had set up in Toronto.
Maria is currently ranked 49th in the world and is working hard to reach her goal of world champion. She has also decided to help support women in Pakistan who are discriminated against based on their gender. “I want to play squash, become world champion and show the people that girls can be world champions,” she told Aljazeera. “Girls can be anything if you give them a chance.” The 22-year old has set up a foundation encouraging families to educate girls and allow them to play sports. “They (people) need someone to represent them,” Maria explained to the BBC. “I think people are tired of so much war and fighting and bombs and kidnapping, I think they want peace and they realize now that they need education.”