Maria grew up in the ultra-conservative Tribal Areas of Pakistan and her family received death threats from the Taliban for supporting her passion for sport.
Refusing to be defeated, Maria secretly practised in her bedroom for years before eventually moving to Canada to further her squash career.
Maria fights for women’s rights through her foundation and as a member of the IOC Women in Sport Commission.
When I was young and living in Pakistan, I used to see boys playing outside. They would throw dodgeballs and fly kites – they had unlimited space to play and have fun.
But for young girls, it was different. We were confined to four walls to take care of our families. The area I come from is the headquarters of the Taliban. Women are not allowed to get an education or even leave their houses. Sport is simply out of the question.
But I was lucky. I had a father who was supportive and who always encouraged me. He said I was unique and different. When I was 12, instead of telling me I should stop going outside and that it was going to be very difficult for me in a very patriarchal society, he introduced me to sport to give me the courage to fight back.
Discovering my passion
The first sport I was introduced to was weightlifting. I competed in the All-Pakistan Under-16 Boys’ Championship under the name Genghis Khan, and I won. Although I was getting stronger through weightlifting, I would still go out and get into fights. This made my father think again.
One day, I discovered squash. I fell in love with it at first sight – I told my father I wanted to play. When he heard this, he said, “I am so happy. From now on you are going to hit the wall rather than people!”
A few months after I started playing, people found out I was a girl. That made things very difficult for me. Even though I was winning at national and international level and was nominated by the World Squash Federation as a rising star in the sport, I was still bullied and harassed – just for being a girl who played squash.
Finding a way out
The media attention brought death threats to my family from the Taliban. For three years I couldn’t play squash in public, but I was still practising against my bedroom wall. I kept playing and training, and I became determined to find a way out.
I sent countless emails to different squash clubs all over the world – anything to escape. Eventually, I got a reply from Canada, where I live today. The people here became my family. They asked me if I needed the Koran, or wanted to live with a Muslim family, or wanted to go to the mosque.
Fighting for change through sport
Today, I feel like I’ve achieved a miracle through sport and through my father, who always supported me. Sport connected me to the rest of the world. I’m a better human, and I think very differently. We are all more similar than we think. It’s not about your religion or your background – it’s about who we are as humans.
I have a plan for how I want to approach society. I come from a region that is known for terrorism, and it’s really hard for the West to understand these people. Even the rest of Pakistan isn’t connected to the region that well. No one understands how our region is operated.
Through the Maria Toorpakai Foundation, I explain how our society works, how our region works, and how beautiful it is. At the same time, I know how to deal with my people, and they accept me more than anyone else because I am from the same region, the same tribe, the same blood. I can approach them, bring change to their lives and be their voice.
An amazing opportunity for me to strengthen my own voice and share my story with so many important people was an invitation to speak at the Olympism in Action Forum in October 2018. It was my first-ever Olympic event – it was fascinating and I felt lucky to be involved. I am the only woman from Pakistan, let alone the Tribal Areas, who compete at that level in squash, so to get the chance to speak at the Forum was a huge honour. I look forward to grasping more opportunities like this.
I am also a member of the IOC Women in Sport Commission. We talk a lot about the issues women face in sport and how we can provide a better and safer environment for them to thrive. It’s inspiring being surrounded by so many active and strong female athletes and listening to their ideas. I learn so much from them and know our work will go on to shape the future.
It’s inspiring being surrounded by so many active and strong female athletes and listening to their ideas. I learn so much from them and know our work will go on to shape the future.
Maria Toorpakai Wazir