Maria Toorpakai’s father nicknamed her "Genghis Kahn" as a child, and she certainly grew into the name. Born in a conservative tribal region in the hills of Waziristan, Pakistan in 1990, Toorpakai had to fight simply so she could play the sport she loves: squash. In fact, Toorpakai lived as a boy outside the home in order to compete, until her gender was revealed at age 12. She continued to compete at a high level, turning pro in 2006 and winning a bronze medal at the 2009 Junior World Championships in Chennai, India. However, her accomplishments attracted increasing attention, and Toorpakai was forced back indoors in response to near-constant threats from the Taliban regime for being “un-Islamic,” reported BBC News.
Toorpakai then began an intense three-year email campaign, writing to squash clubs around the world hoping to find a new training space. In the meantime, she hit squash balls against a wall at home, not knowing whether she’d ever have the opportunity to play competitively again. Toorpakai now trains full-time in Canada, but she remains vocal about the rights of girls and women in Pakistan through her eponymous foundation and her 2016 autobiography, A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight.
We asked Toorpakai about going undercover, fighting her way to a top ranking in professional squash, and exactly how she earned her childhood nickname.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On taking chances for change
I grew up in the tribal areas of Pakistan where life was difficult and the culture was extreme. Women weren’t allowed to go to school or even get information from television and newspapers. I’m very lucky in that my mom worked to educate girls, and my father was always an extremely broad-minded person. My dad always said to me that animals provide equally for their male and female children, and so why shouldn’t humans—born with far greater intelligence—do the same? He believed, and so do I, that when you’re going to do something different or unique, you’re always going to face extreme resistance. People fear change, but it’s worth taking extreme risks for parents to help their daughters live the lives they were meant to live. Change will come, but it doesn’t happen overnight or by itself.
On coming out fighting
Naturally I'm very aggressive, and that's why my father first put me in sports. When I was four I burned all my girlie dresses and cut my hair short. When my father found me like that—wearing my brothers’ clothes—rather than acting shocked, he actually smiled and nicknamed me “Genghis Kahn” there on the spot. That was my lucky day, and it brought me all the happiness in the world. My dad supported me [from that day] onwards and introduced me as his son so that I could train in my sport. So I guess the way I am is really a combination of nature and nurture. I came out fighting, but my upbringing and our home environment based on equality made it possible for me to keep on fighting, even when everything outside our home made that almost impossible.
On showing others what’s possible
I look a little bit Western, I play squash in shorts, and I have a tattoo on my arm. I hardly ever wear [traditional] clothes, so when I’m in Pakistan and girls see me like that, they're curious. When I speak in my cultural language they're really surprised and amazed. They want to hear stories, and they feel empowered because they see they can be like this. I was at a squash court in Pakistan recently and there were girls who came in wearing burkas. After watching me, playing hard and running fast, they wanted to do the same. Before I knew it, there they were on the court without their burkas, and trust me, they were running, maybe for the first time, completely free like the boys. It was just so amazing and gratifying to see that.
On appreciating the struggle
I don’t ever look back and wish things were different. My life is perfect because it’s my life. We don’t choose where we are born and we don’t choose our parents. Some people see constant struggle in their lives and some face none at all. I'm very satisfied that I have a father who supported me, an educated mother, and an educated sister. I have brothers who are kind and sweet, and I’m in a position now today where I can help girls find support and a voice. The squash players from the West had very different experiences and training growing up, but I wouldn’t trade anything. The work that I do in Pakistan with women and children is so gratifying that I couldn’t imagine not having that as a part of my life.
"I think strength and power come from flexibility. I try to stay open, curious, and flexible about whatever comes onto my path."
On gaining strength through flexibility
I was a weightlifter before I played squash [professionally], but the particular sport you choose doesn't make any difference. I think power comes from your mindset and your mentality. If you think you're strong, you will be strong.
Off the court, I gain strength by staying positive and hopeful. My life has been threatened, and I have seen someone die in front of me. So yes, there have been difficult times where I lost hope. But I always want to think positively and look at all the good things in the world and all the good people. That makes me feel empowered and strong. I also gain strength by trying to learn from the people around me. Wherever I go, I go with an open mind and a clean heart. I'm not scared of meeting different kinds of people or being among people from other cultures. I feel that the key is to be like water, which is always flexible and finds a path. Rigidity, like what you can find in my culture in Pakistan, is what you have to be afraid of. I think strength and power come from flexibility. I try to stay open, curious, and flexible about whatever comes onto my path.
On spreading the word
It was very difficult finding the right balance, working on my training, my foundation, and my book, but luckily I found a good professional team who helps and teaches me. Right now we’re busy redesigning our website, working on our mission statement, and I’m currently in Pakistan doing work with the hospital for women and children that we built here. In this area of the country, we have drug culture and gun culture, and terrorism is a big problem, so next I want to build a state-of-the-art sports facility that will keep people busier and be something the region can be proud of. There’s a lot of political chaos here right now, which makes the work we do even more important.
On the power of sisterhood
My sister is very different than I am, but also very tough. The most obvious difference is that she wears scarves and is always in traditional clothing, and I’m always in shorts. I think it’s our differences that explain why we get along really well. We both spoke out early, but she has a very different story. She was eight or nine when she started speaking up in tribal Jirgas, which are the councils for the elders in the tribal areas. She spoke then, and has been speaking ever since, about women’s rights, the environment, health issues, education, and so much more.
Recently, in 2017, my sister was basically the first one in Pakistan speaking out about sexual harassment. She faced extreme resistance included multiple death threats. She stood up for so many women who were scared and didn’t have a voice. That’s what I’m telling these young girls. This was the most extreme time in my life, my father’s life, my sister’s life, but we came out of it successfully and it gave courage to a lot of women and girls out there. I could never have imagined any of this, but I’m so proud of how we’re moving forward.
On not asking for permission
With every step forward you take, there will always be people who want to tell you what to do and how to be. I tell girls that we should follow our hearts and listen to our feelings and instincts first. A lot of girls want to pursue careers, play sports, or continue their educations, but are waiting for permission or are too afraid to try. I tell them that life comes once, and if what you want is right and good and isn’t given to you, well, you go and get it. Take it.
25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.