Growing up a girl in Pakistan is not easy, especially in the violently oppressive region of Waziristan. From the moment you are born, you are handed a blueprint that lays out what your life is going to be. Some girls are lucky enough to have feminist fathers, like Maria Toorpakai, but unfortunately, most will have to struggle and fight their way through walls built solely for the purpose of obstructing women.
Maria was fortunate to be born into a family that valued equality. Her mother was a teacher, her sister was debating girls’ rights and politics since the age of six, and her father was her biggest supporter. The day she burned her dresses and cut her hair short to look like her brothers, he gave a warm goodbye to Maria and welcomed her by her new name, Genghis Khan.
As a child, Maria had such an energetic and aggressive personality that her father encouraged her to channel it into sports. She was 12 when she discovered her love for squash, a popular sport amongst boys in Pakistan. Since the moment she first picked up a racquet, she took every opportunity she had to play, eventually rising to the top as a junior squash player at international tournaments. But she couldn’t hide her identity for long.
As Maria grew up, it became apparent amongst her team members and in her community that she was a girl competing in boys’ tournaments. The story blew up in the media and her identity was revealed. From that moment onwards, things changed. Her teammates began to treat her differently and she began to truly endure life as a woman. She had to be more careful when travelling alone, she changed the way she interacted with men, the way she smiled, and even the way she dressed.
Inevitably, the Taliban caught a whiff of her story and it became too dangerous to live at home. Her family received constant threats and ridicule from members of the community and from the Taliban. But she persevered, and with the support of her family, she ended up becoming one of Pakistan’s best squash players. Her family still receive threats today.
Maria is just one of the many strong and inspiring women from Pakistan. Even now, although it’s 2017 and it seems like the world is progressing, it’s easy to forget that there are still women in developing countries who are years and years behind when it comes to their freedom and human rights. But with the subject of feminism becoming more powerful and prominent, more and more young women in Pakistan and other surrounding countries are beginning to realise how powerful they are and always have been.
Words: Saima Khalid
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