After our recent look at the life of Olympic fencer Halet Çambel, we’re on a bit of a run of shouting out inspirational Muslim-women-athletes. We’re now turning our focus on Maria Toorpakai, a Pakistani squash player who was the subject of a documentary that recently screened at the Human Rights Watch film festival in London.
Girl Unbound: The War to Be Her charts Maria’s story, one that seems more suited to fiction than a documentary. Growing up in Waziristan, a tribal region of Pakistan, Maria was forbidden from playing sport due to a strict Taliban law. Yet thanks to the daring of her father Shamsul Qayyum Wazir,
who has always been a champion of equal rights, Maria got the chance to compete – in disguise.
He dressed her as a boy and, because of her natural strength, encouraged her to take up weightlifting. Due to a natural talent for the game, weightlifting quickly gave way to squash. But the more Maria won – and the older she got – the more people grew suspicious. When she was asked to produce a birth certificate by a local squash club, her cover was blown.
But Maria didn’t give up, and she started to compete as a girl. By age 16, she’d won bronze at the junior world championships. Yet her success drew criticism from people back home in Waziristan. Her father was threatened by his tribe, who said there would be ‘dire consequences’ if Maria continued to play. Unwilling to risk herself or her family, Maria began to contact clubs and universities around the world in the hope she could leave Pakistan, continue to play squash, and ensure the safety of those around her. Jonathon Power, a Canadian former world No1, soon invited her to train in Canada.
Maria, now 26, represents Pakistan in international tournaments and she’s won two titles. She has since returned to Pakistan from Canada, and Girl Unbound…follows Maria as she works to promote gender equality and inspire more women to take up sport in her home country, despite continued threats against her family.
Stay on the lookout for screenings of Girl Unbound…by following the film’s Facebook page.