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For most young girls, playing sports is a choice. For Pakistani squash player Maria Toorpakai Wazir, the 2016 Wilma Rudolph Courage Award winner, sports were not considered an option. Simply competing as a girl, which put Toorpakai Wazir and the lives of her family in danger, is a testament to her courage and will.
Toorpakai Wazir was born in 1990 in Waziristan, Pakistan, a remote region bordering Afghanistan that has been referred to by journalists as the “most dangerous place on earth.” Fundamentalist and repressive Taliban leaders in Waziristan don’t allow girls to attend school. With a population of roughly 10 million, male literacy rates are approximately 33 percent, and female literacy rates are less than eight percent. Most girls in Waziristan aren’t even allowed to venture outside their home.
However, Toorpakai Wazir’s family firmly adhered to a spirit of justice and equality in the face of the repressive regimes that have plagued Pakistan. Her father spent his youth learning from progressive German and Icelandic visitors to Pakistan; her mother was educated and committed to women’s rights. By the age of four, Toorpakai Wazir, who had already discovered a love of play, had started to wear boy’s clothing. By seven, she had taken to living her life as a boy. She hid from the Taliban in plain sight, going by the name Chengaiz Khan.
With the support of her family and still disguised as a boy, Toorpakai Wazir flourished as an athlete. At 12, she was ranked second out of all the junior boy weightlifters in Pakistan. During breaks from weightlifting, Toorpakai Wazir would sneak into the nearby squash courts and watch the men in her community play. She immediately fell in love with the outfits and the rackets; she wanted to experience the thrill of chasing after the ball. Her decision was made: She would play squash.
Toorpakai Wazir found her true passion, but also the true test of her courage, in squash. In 2002, her father took her to a squash academy and after they were told to produce a birth certificate, Toorpakai Wazir revealed that she was, in fact, a girl. The academy director shared the same progressive views as her father, and Toorpakai Wazir was handed a racquet. Although the coach believed in the power of Toorpakai’s dreams, the young player was relentlessly harassed and bullied by her fellow teammates. Still, she prevailed, and in 2006, she became a professional squash player.
As a female athlete who played without a veil and in shorts, Toorpakai Wazir was perceived as “un-Islamic,” causing legitimate concerns for her safety and the safety of her family. In 2007, she earned an award from Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, and in 2009, she was nominated for the Best Player of the Year Award by the World Squash Federation.
With the accolades, however, came death threats from the Taliban. The Pakistani National Squash Federation provided security, placing snipers around her house, along the way to the squash court and on the court.
“There was a time when I could not even go outside at all,” she recalls. “For more than three years, I could only train in my own room.” During this time, Toorpakai Wazir wrote thousands of emails to coaches abroad, sometimes 90 a day, desperate for someone to take her on and allow her to play.
Among the recipients of her messages was Jonathon Power, a now-retired squash champion from Canada. Power offered to bring Toorpakai Wazir to Toronto, where she currently resides, and act as her trainer. Toorpakai Wazir ranks No. 1 in Pakistan; her highest world senior ranking is number 41. She has ranked as high as third on the World Junior list . She has won seven Professional Squash Association events since moving to Canada. She is also a World Junior Championships bronze medalist and was a silver medalist at the South Asian Games 2016.
Toorpakai Wazir, now with a home both in Pakistan and in Canada, hopes to help build a bridge, through sports, to unite two parts of the world.
No longer in disguise and now courageously standing on the forefront, Toorpakai Wazir declared that, “all I hope today, is that my people could understand that the hate is not going to solve any problems.” In overcoming oppression, Toorpakai Wazir demands reconciliation for her beloved Pakistan by proclaiming, “we cannot keep that illusion in our brains that everyone is our enemy, everyone is against you.” In being the worthy recipient of this year’s Wilma Rudolph Courage Award, Toorpakai Wazir reminds us all that courage is the mantle of freedom.
The Wilma Rudolph Courage Award is presented at our Annual Salute to Women in Sports to a female athlete who exhibits extraordinary courage in her athletic performance, demonstrates the ability to overcome adversity, makes significant contributions to sports and serves as an inspiration and role model to those who face challenges, overcomes them and strives for success at all levels. This award was first given in 1996 to Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Learn more here.