Q&A: Maria Toorpakai, the top-ranked Pakistani squash player who dressed as a boy for a decade
Maria Toorpakai fled Taliban rule for Toronto and became a successful athlete. She just added “author” to her resumé
As you document in your book, A Different Kind of Daughter, you realized at a young age you didn’t want to wear dresses like other girls. Do you still remember that moment?
I was four the first time I chose to dress up like my brothers. In Pakistan, you didn’t see girls outside—they were at home and helping their moms or playing with dolls. I thought it was the clothes that made the difference, so I burned all of my girly clothes and cut off my hair. I looked really stupid, but it felt right.
That must have been a shock to your parents.
It was, but they supported me. My dad’s sister had been a tomboy like me and I think he understood me. My dad is very brave. When he was young, he spent time with hippies in the tribal regions of Pakistan, he wore jeans, he would help my mother with housework, he was always speaking about women’s rights. He helped me pick my male name: Genghis Khan, a name he knew from history books.
Wow—quite the moniker. So from that point on, you dressed as a boy?
Yes. At home we were all treated equally. My dad would say, “Look at the birds—they don’t feed their daughters second. Why should there be a difference?” I hung out with boys already, so I started to just think I was one of them. We would play, get into fights, act shy around the girls.
Your dad introduced you to sports, right?
Yes. When I was 12 years old, we moved from the tribal regions to Peshawar, which was a safer, more progressive area. I tried weightlifting, but then I noticed the squash courts and knew I wanted to try. I went to sign up, and they told me I needed to show a birth certificate. That was when I admitted that I was in fact female. I was lucky—the man who ran the squash academy was educated and supportive of having a girl playing squash.
What was it like to return to Maria after almost a decade as Genghis?
When word got out, people bullied me. Horse cart drivers would hit me with sticks. Then I turned pro and began winning awards, and the Taliban took notice. They oppose women playing sports of any kind, and there I was—a girl from their own tribe, dressing in shorts, excelling at squash. They sent my father a death threat.
That must have been terrifying. Was it tempting to give in?
No. I realized that I had to leave. I sent emails to squash clubs all over the world. Finally I got a response from Jonathon Power, the former squash champ, who offered to bring me to Canada. I was quite sick at the time with dengue fever and hepatitis, but I was very excited. I arrived in March 2011. I was 20. Jonathon met me at the airport. It was amazing. Everyone just wanted me to play squash; nobody cared about anything else.
How’s your squash game now?
My racket skills and hitting are phenomenal. But I am still recovering from plantar fasciitis and nerve damage. It has taken a few years to recover physically and psychologically. I have a bit of pain in my foot, but that’s it.
You’re currently ranked first in Pakistan and 67th in the world. Is world champion still your goal?
It is one of them, yes. My ultimate goals are to help my community back home and to raise awareness about inequality. I am taking painting lessons, and I want to act in Hollywood movies, so that I can have a really big platform for my message.
Sort of like Angelina Jolie?
She’s my favourite. She came to Pakistan, and she is just a wonderful human being.
Now that you’ve adjusted to life in Toronto, what is a typical week like?
I live in a house with roommates off the Danforth. I enjoy cooking, running and swimming. Sometimes I’ll go to the movies or for ice cream. Recently I went to a Raptors game—a friend of Jonathon’s gave us $1,500 floor seats.
And how do you identify now in terms of gender?
It’s strange. I understand both male and female psychologies. In some ways, my behaviour changes with my clothing. I’m comfortable with it. Mostly, I’m just happy.