Pakistan's top female squash player used to disguise herself as a boy, to avoid possible Taliban retribution. When her secret was revealed, she faced a terrible choice. Host Scott Simon talks with Maria Toorpakai and her coach, former squash world champion Jonathon Power.
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Pakistan's top female squash player used to have to pretend that she was as boy. Maria Toorpakai is now 22 years old. She was born in Waziristan, that region of the country that's been called one of the most dangerous places on Earth, and home of the Pakistani Taliban. They did not like a girl running around in shorts, playing squash.
So Maria disguised herself as a boy until her secret became known, and then she had to choose between the sport she loves and the safety of her family. Maria Toorpakai joins us now, from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Thanks so much for being with us.
MARIA TOORPAKAI: Thank you.
SIMON: And how did you start playing squash dressed up as a boy?
TOORPAKAI: You know, I grew up as a tomboy and since my childhood, I showed this interest in boy's clothes. When I was 4, my parents went out from the house for a while and at that time I took all my girly clothes - like frocks, and everything - I just took them out and burned them. And I put on my brother's clothes, and I cut my hair in the wrong way. So my father, when he found out - and he came - and he laughed. So he said, OK, here we have a Genghis Khan. From that time, I grew up with the name of Genghis Khan for the outside world.
SIMON: How did people generally - finally discover that you are a woman?
TOORPAKAI: After two months of playing squash, people came to know about me - that I am a girl - because I had to present my proper birth certificate to the academy, to become a member. The academy director, he was a really nice man, and he gifted me a racquet that had a Jonathon Power signature on it. So that was my first squash racquet. I think that's how the story started from there, actually.
SIMON: Well, we will get to get to that because as it happens, Jonathon Power is there in the studio with you in Toronto. Mr. Power, thank you for joining us.
JONATHON POWER: Happy to be here.
SIMON: And let me get you to stand by, for a moment. And Maria, let me get you to tell us about the emails that you began to send.
TOORPAKAI: Yes. In 2007, actually, you know, I performed really well in international tournament, and President Musharraf gave me an award. So after that, it was kind of in newspapers, in televisions, and in media everywhere. So that's how I got the threats. You know, at that time, so many bad - lots of things were happening, too - bomb blasts and, you know, kidnapping and killing; the kind of things all in that area, in Peshawar, you know? So I stopped. And I started playing for three years in my room; hitting from night to morning, every night.
So at the same time, my father, when he realized that, you know, I'm not going to give up - yeah, I want to play squash, and I have so much love for squash - so he told me when a baby bird wants to learn flying, then he/she has to leave the nest. So he said, if you want to learn to play squash and want to improve, then you have to leave the house and leave the country, and never come back.
So at that time, I realized - and I started emailing to different countries and Western countries; thousands of email I started sending to every club, academy or, you know, schools or colleges, universities, wherever I could find the squash goal. And I get an email back, and who am I - get the reply back from? It was Jonathon Power and saying that, you know, he is going to support me and teach me how to play squash, and will make me world champion for Pakistan.
SIMON: Let's bring back Jonathon Power, the world's former No. 1 squash player. So you get this email from a young woman who says - I'm reading from that initial email - (Reading) Here, girls of my age are passing their lives in such a miserable condition. They have no facilities in education, health and have no recreational activities. They're restricted to four walls, despite having the desire to come out of the Stone Age and get assimilated with the rest of the world.
A lot of people, Mr. Power, would read an email like that and say, this is terrible; I feel for you, and I'm going to give a nice contribution to Amnesty International. But you did more than that.
POWER: Yeah, I guess so, for sure. I had spent my life in that part of the world. Squash is a big sport in Pakistan, in Egypt, in the Gulf States. And I'd spent 17 years touring and - with my eyes open, and seeing how - the situation there. And when I got this email, obviously, it resonated with me.
SIMON: I know she's a very courageous young woman. What kind of squash player is she?
POWER: Oh, she was phenomenal. It was exciting for me. When I brought her, and I picked her up at the airport, she'd been locked in her room for three years - not able to train properly, not able to develop; kind of like she was Rocky, locked in Siberia. So she didn't look an athlete when she got here. So when I picked her up at the airport, I took her straight to the squash courts. And then I watched her hit the ball, and I realized how special she was.
SIMON: Yeah. Good for you. Maria, how do you like Canada?
TOORPAKAI: I'm very happy. I'm playing with piece of mind. A little bit I'm worried about my family every time, you know, because they're back there. But still I know I am very determined because my vision is to bring change to my people, not only to my people but everywhere. The women are famined, somewhere they are depressed, you know. But I'm very happy. I'm training hard. I used to be in extreme pain because I was training in my room. But now I am getting the best facility, you know, on-court training is the best and I'm getting treatment from the best doctors. You know, for the first time I'm feeling I have legs, actually. And I can breathe, actually.
SIMON: You can breathe. You can breathe free, you mean.
TOORPAKAI: Well, yeah, in every sense I can say I can breathe.
SIMON: Maria Toorpakai, I don't follow squash much but I think I will now. And I know who I am going to root for.
TOORPAKAI: You should.
SIMON: Maria Toorpakai, who is Pakistan's number one female squash player, now number 49 in the world. And Jonathon Power, former world champion, who is now her trainer, joining us from Toronto. Thank you both very much for being with us. Good luck.
POWER: Thanks very much.
TOORPAKAI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.