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To Play Sports Under Taliban Rule, 'Different Kind Of Daughter' Dressed As A Boy


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. When our guest was a girl growing up in the tribal area of Pakistan, she dressed like a boy to be able to live with some sense of freedom. To become a weightlifter and enter competitions in Pakistan, she entered as a boy. And instead of using her name - Maria Toorpakai - she used the name Genghis Khan.

Her parents support women's rights and have taken great risks to teach in the tribal areas, in spite of the Taliban bombing their schools. As for Maria, when she became a teenager, she gave up weightlifting for squash and gave up pretending she was a boy. She became the first tribal Pakistani girl to represent the country in international squash tournaments and came in third in the world junior women's championship.

But because the Taliban forbids sports and being a woman athlete is an even greater transgression, she basically went into hiding until she was accepted at a new squash academy in Canada founded by a former world squash champion. She's now 25 years old and is the only female in international competition ranked in the top 50. She's written a new memoir called "A Different Kind Of Daughter." Terry spoke to her last week.


Maria Toorpakai, welcome to FRESH AIR. As a girl growing up in the tribal regions of Pakistan, you would have been expected when you grew up to stay in seclusion at home, dress, like, in full covering any time you did leave the house escorted by a man and certainly not be an athlete, yes?

MARIA TOORPAKAI: Exactly. Sometimes I don't believe who I am today. Like, it's unbelievable for me. I come from that region and there the girls are not allowed to go outside the house. They are not allowed to get education and at a young age they are getting married. So it's a very sad situation in there for girls and I am very lucky to be who I am today and just because, you know, my parents.

GROSS: Yes, you have extraordinary parents. Let me back up a little bit. You write that you hated dolls, you were miserable wearing dresses and you rejected anything remotely feminine.

By the age of 4, you were permitted by your parents to dress in boys' clothes and by the age of 7 you were living as a boy. What did it mean to live as a boy at age 7 in Waziristan?

TOORPAKAI: Well, coming from that region, I feel that it's a blessing for me that I lived life like a tomboy just because I had all the freedom like boys have. I really enjoyed my life when I was young, the freedom, but before that I had some, you know, some incidents that I - as a child I could really sense that it's not fair because I'm different. I'm very strong and I can be equally good as boys.

So, you know, I saw girls that they were not allowed to play football, to play, you know, outside, just those fun games. And then some guy, you know, he treated me really badly when they were playing volleyball match and I really wanted to play with the ball and I was young. I was very young. But he just said go home, you know, like, you shouldn't be here.

So at that time I thought it's maybe - it's just because my father is very pro-women rights and he educated my mom after marriage, my sister, he was very focused on her education. So maybe the people - he didn't really like me because of my father, but, you know, later on I understood with time that it's not very friendly with girls, the society.

GROSS: Just before fifth grade, you got all of your dresses out of the closet, you poured kerosene on them and set them on fire. That's a pretty big statement to make (laughter). What was your parents' reaction to that?

TOORPAKAI: When I burned the clothes just because I wanted to dress up like my brother and go out and play outside with freedom, he realized that he had a sister. And she was exactly the same I was but she didn't have that kind of choices and she didn't have such father.

So my father's sister died because of carrying all that pressure and he realized that he doesn't want to lose his daughter so that's why he was - he just smiled and he said, well, I'm going to name you Genghis Khan.

GROSS: Your father's sister had just collapsed one day and he thought she died basically of a broken heart because she wasn't allowed to live the life that she wanted to live.

TOORPAKAI: That's true. That's true. It was a lot of pressure for her. She was exactly like me. She was strong. She was kind of like a tomboy. But she couldn't just go out and do all the things that I am allowed to do just because my father is - you know, he had understood with time. So he lost his sister but, you know, I'm here.

GROSS: Yes, thank goodness. Female athletes didn't exist in the tribal areas where you're from. You write that your mother had never seen a woman athlete. So how did you even imagine becoming one?

TOORPAKAI: It was just an accident. You know, we tribal people - we don't come out of that region very often. We don't speak many languages, and, you know, it's a very old way of life, like stone age I would say. But, you know, when we moved to Peshawar and my father, he always knew that I am always found in the middle of fights. I'm always bleeding, bruised and always leading the gangs of boys.

But then he was a little afraid, how he's going to do it. It's a very different step to take and it's - education is a far-away thing for girls so now he's putting his daughter into sports. But then he introduced me with my boyish name, Genghis Khan.

GROSS: Right, so you took the name Genghis Khan. It was under that name that you initially competed. And your first sport wasn't squash - you're a champion squash player - but your first sport was weightlifting. And you competed as a weightlifter and did very well. But again, you competed under the name Genghis Khan. Were you afraid that somebody would discover your real identity?

TOORPAKAI: It was really hard for people to find out that I'm a girl because I looked exactly like boys. But then in weightlifting it was funny the way everything happened. We went to Lahore and my brother and all the boys and we were sharing the same room, same bathrooms. And then, you know, it was a little tricky how to handle that situation.

And when the weightlifting championship is starting every boy has to go and weigh their body, you know, it's like the body weight, you know? So they have to take off their clothes. And my brother was - you know, he went there with me just to protect me and he was also playing but he was more to protect me. And then he refused to take off his clothes and another - one of the other guy was really shy. He said I don't want to do it, too, and then I refused. So it worked out that way.

GROSS: I see, so you had other people refusing to take off their clothes so that you could refuse to take off yours. Was that modesty an acceptable explanation for the authorities?

TOORPAKAI: I think so. In that kind of region, people know that it's religiously very strong and it's - culturally boys are not used to wearing shorts. So it was kind of understandable.

GROSS: So you got through your whole period of weightlifting as a boy?


GROSS: And then you decided that what you really wanted to do was be a squash player?

TOORPAKAI: I, you know, there were squash courts beside the weightlifting place. And during my break time I go there and I watched squash. It was so much fun to watch those kids playing with those rackets and balls and so much enthusiastic, you know, when you dive for a ball and get the ball after one bounce or just volley it. It was so much fun for me and after weightlifting, you know, when I won the championship in boys, I came back and I just...

GROSS: That's pretty great, right (laughter)?

TOORPAKAI: ...Yeah. I came back and I just didn't know what's my next challenge because I couldn't see any further tournaments or anything. And it was a little scary, too, as I explained, you have to weigh your body every time. And I'm 12 and a half and, you know, you grow with time.

GROSS: Yes, your body's changing, yeah. So when you switched to squash as your sport, did you initially compete as a boy or as a girl?

TOORPAKAI: In the beginning I tried to introduce - my father and I - we tried to introduce myself as a boy. We went to a proper squash academy.

TOORPAKAI: There was this director of the academy and my father said I want my son to play squash, and his name is Ghengis Khan. Again, you know, he used my name. But the director of the academy, he asked for the birth certificate to become a member of the academy and that was the time that my father got a little back off but then he said, well, I don't care and I have to say whatever happens will happen.

And then when he said this is my daughter. Her name is this and it was so funny a situation when the director of the academy found out that finally a girl is going to play and in the beginning he couldn't - he just kept looking at me and he said really, it's a girl? But then he was really happy and he gifted me a squash racket with Jonathon Power signature series.

GROSS: So you did very well in squash. You're now a champion player.

TOORPAKAI: I tried really hard. I trained so hard. It was unbelievable. I had no - you know, as soon as I started playing squash lots of people came to know about me, that I'm a girl after two months. And it became so hard for me that I just didn't know what to do. And I worked so hard in that room. I didn't have any training partner or coach. And I trained by myself for hours and hours and just inventing all the different drills and how can I hit different shots, and, you know, I just got better with time.

GROSS: Once your name and photograph started appearing in newspapers because you were winning, did you get threats from the Taliban? Because the area where you grew up, Waziristan, is, you know, kind of home territory to the Taliban and I don't think they'd really appreciate that you, a girl, was playing squash and competing and winning, setting a very bad example, I'm sure, as far as they were concerned.

TOORPAKAI: Well, Taliban are trying to control every part of Pakistan, right, and they want everyone to follow their rules, their way of religion. And if you see, they shot Malala. I was threatened before her in 2007. She was shot in 2009. And you see so many artists who are kidnapped, who are killed on the streets and lots of artists escaped. So squash is something which is completely un-Islamic to them and it's unbearable.

And I come from Waziristan, which is the hub of Taliban and Waziristan means the land of Wazir people, so mostly you see lots of Taliban are Wazir and the other small tribes in there. So it was unacceptable for them that being their - like, their own blood, the same girl from their region is playing sports in skirts and in shorts, which is unacceptable for them. And that - I think that's why I got those threats and was - I just didn't know what to do with that.

GROSS: What kind of threats did you get? And what about your family? Were they threatened too?

TOORPAKAI: Well, these were severe threats. They threatened my father to just go for religious preaching, learn about Islam more and take off - like, keep his daughter away from sports and his other daughter from education. And this is not what we do, our tribal people, or our tribal elders. And you're bringing bad name to us and you know what we can do if you keep continue those things and, you know, we won't spare you.

GROSS: So you went to your father for advice, asking him what should you do, should you stop? What did he tell you?

TOORPAKAI: Now, my father came to me actually.

GROSS: Oh, he came to you.

TOORPAKAI: He came to me. He explained the situation. And he said this is the situation, but I am always with you, and you want to play squash, you keep going and I'm always there to protect you. Whatever happens will happen. We'll see.

GROSS: He sounds like such a remarkable man and your mother such a remarkable woman. Not only were they unconventional, they allowed you to be unconventional and they supported you every step of the way. And your parents have taught at great risk to themselves.

They've taken risks, too. Your mother has been a teacher and a principal. Several of her schools have been burned to the ground by the Taliban. She continues to teach in the tribal areas, which are the most dangerous places.

TOORPAKAI: That's true.

GROSS: Your father continues to teach. You know, they live in Peshawar, but, you know, he often goes into the tribal areas to teach. So I just have such an enormous admiration for the risks you've all taken and to do what you believe is right and to live free lives and to stand up for certain principles and to believe in education for boys and girls.

TOORPAKAI: Well, this journey that I'm taking further today, that is started with my father. And he was the first one who stepped up against all this cruelty against girls, against women, and all the different kind of - the traditions that are actually bringing bad name to religion because lots of people don't understand Islam either that much. They just follow the religion and they're mixing both together, our tradition and culture and religion.

And my father was very - he kind of - he started writing poetry and started wall-chalking the poetry. It was revolutionary poetry and people got really against him with that. And then he also - many times he was arguing, you know, with the jirga, with the people, the elders in there about what we can do better for our people and how for - especially women and girls.

And he also put his poetry in a singing way, you know, the local singers, so he asked them to sing his poetry, and then he made a cassette out of it. He gave this cassette to all different public transport so they can play this cassette and people can listen. And one day my father just went into the market and there were lots of people and my father stood on a high place and asking people for all these different issues and to solve it and the cruelty against women. But the people were not listening.

And then my father - there was a graveyard on the other side. My father turned to that and he started doing his speech to the dead people and he said, well, you guys are more listening to me than these people because I feel you are alive and they are dead.

GROSS: Wow (laughter). So do you and your parents still practice Islam?

TOORPAKAI: Definitely. We pray five times. My father and my family just went to Mecca for pilgrimage, and they came back. And my father is a very logical person, and he believes in - the core of religion is all same and is all - it goes towards humanity and God loves us all.

GROSS: Maria, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maria Toorpakai and she's a Pakistani champion squash player. She grew up in the tribal areas of Pakistan, very conservative area where the Taliban kind of control it now. And she's written a memoir called "A Different Kind Of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From The Taliban In Plain Sight." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maria Toorpakai. She has a new memoir called "A Different Kind Of Daughter" about growing up in the tribal area of Pakistan where women are expected to remain at home in seclusion, and when they do leave home, to be completely covered. She rebelled as a child, dressing as a boy, and becoming an athlete. She is ranked as Pakistan's number one female squash player now. She trains in Canada at Jonathan Power's squash academy where she can be an athlete and a woman without coming under attack by the Taliban.

So we were talking about how when you started competing as a girl, that the Taliban started threatening your family. And you wanted to start carrying cyanide pills because you had heard about how the Taliban treated girls when they kidnapped them. You also thought it might be wise to carry a gun. Did you get your hands on either cyanide pills or a gun?

TOORPAKAI: Well, no. Like the cyanide pill came in my mind but I didn't carry it. But I also wanted to carry a gun because I thought if they attacked me I can also take them down with me. So it was like that for me. And other than that I - you know, I know how to use gun. I was, you know, when I was 10, I, you know, in tribal regions it was very difficult. Some people also attacked our house and they stoned our house. Or even

one night, some people - some guy who came into our house at night time when my parents were away. But luckily my far (ph) parents came like five minutes before he was - he kind of attacked us but then he ran away when he saw my father, and that was the time my father realized that we need gun. And he taught - the next day he got a gun and he taught me how to use it. And I was 10 years old.

So I was kind of protecting our home too for a long time. So - but this time I thought it's to protect my parents' honor because my father has done a lot for us and because of his love I owe him everything. Like, you know, he has done a lot for us.

GROSS: But it's your mother who you describe as the bravest member of the family. And she's taken great risks herself to teach.

TOORPAKAI: She did. Even today, her school is all bombed. Half on the floor, half the building is there and she goes in a very casual-like clothes - so like any woman from the village would wear such clothes, she would look like that. And she would go there in a public bus every time a different bus and she would go there and she would teach the kids and assemble the teachers, everyone and then she would come back. And she is still the same.

And I think in tribal regions if you see - she used to go to village to village, walk, like, for miles and she would talk to the parents and she would say, you know, your daughter is my daughter. I will look after them, I'll keep your honor. It was going to be very respectable environment.

So lots of girls got very motivated to - the number of the girls became more and more in that region. One thing happen one day. One of the - like when my mother left, actually, but those girls still come to our house and tell my mom the stories.

So one of the girls came to our house and she said about one of my mom's students that she escaped with someone. And the family actually are thinking of putting her in acid drum because she found - they found her in Karachi and they brought her back to the tribal region and they are thinking of punishing her, to put her in acid drum, and they shot the guy. So now they don't know - like I - we didn't hear back after that, but I don't know what happened to them.

GROSS: A drum of acid, like a barrel of acid?

TOORPAKAI: That's what they were thinking. She was locked, yeah.

GROSS: Wow. And that's their own daughter they were thinking of doing that to?

TOORPAKAI: That was their own daughter because society's so rigid and that's why they don't allow their daughter's outside. They think education makes you, you know, a bad person. That's why they don't allow you to go to school or they don't want to bring any television to the house or any newspaper or any radio because the more you hear about the outside world you'll become rebellious and you would do such things that will bring dishonor to the family. And that's why our region is so much backward because they don't want to connect with the world.

DAVIES: Maria Toorpakai speaking with Terry Gross. Toorpakai's book is "A Different Kind Of Daughter." After a break, we'll hear more about her life and we'll hear from Irish filmmaker John Carney. Like his movies "Once" and "Begin Again," music plays a part in his new film "Sing Street." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with Maria Toorpakai, an internationally ranked squash player who grew up in the tribal region of Pakistan. As a young girl, she dressed as a boy to have some freedom in the country and even entered weightlifting competition as a boy. She's had the support of parents who are committed to women's rights despite the presence of the Taliban in the region.

GROSS: Your father actually had, like, a videocassette recorder and managed to find copies of "Rocky" and certain TV shows. So like, you really admired Rocky a lot when you were young.


GROSS: Yeah, so you had some exposure. You knew that there was a world outside of the world that you were growing up in.

TOORPAKAI: So, I'll tell you the story. My father, when he was young, he came across some hippies. He spent time with them. He learned a lot from them...

GROSS: In Pakistan?

TOORPAKAI: In Pakistan. And they were from Germany, from Iceland. And he learned a lot from them. And then he also - there was a book place, you know, when you get the secondhand books. And those books come from Western countries. And you buy them by weighing them, like, 1 kilogram books, 2 kilogram books.

And he used to collect all the good books, bring that home, first learn himself and then teach us. And then he used to manage bringing a VCR and then cassettes, which has, like, wildlife cassettes about...

GROSS: The jungle.

TOORPAKAI: Yeah, animals. So he used to bring those, and "Tom And Jerry" and different cartoons. And he used to teach us from that. They know how Tom is big and Jerry is small, but he tricks him. And look at the lion, you know. He always attack the kid. So he would always separate the kid from their parents. And then he will attack them.

And that's what he was telling us, that in society the bad elements will always separate you from your parents and then will attack you, just like drug dealers or the Taliban. They would always look for your child, you know, to attack you.

GROSS: That's a scary thing to find out about when you're the child.

TOORPAKAI: (Laughter).

GROSS: No, seriously, 'cause...

TOORPAKAI: So I think you have to learn. You have to be mature. And, you know, that's why I think I got mature in very young age.

GROSS: So are you still in touch with any of the children grew up with? 'Cause I'm really curious what happened to them - what happened to the girls, what happened to the boys.

TOORPAKAI: I'll tell you this story. You won't believe, but it's - around seven or eight years ago, I went to one of the tribal region because of - there was some marriage ceremony. And they really asked my mom to come. It was a marriage ceremony of some of my mom's student. So when we went there, I just couldn't believe all those girls - I had seen them in my mom's school, or they came to our house. They were such beautiful young girls, delicate, you know.

But when I saw them, they were same age as I am. And they have so many children. And their faces are wrinkled, and they look, like, 50 years old. And I just told my mom, I don't want to stay here. I want to go home. And, you know, you can see how their life has been. You can see the effects on their faces and on their bodies, you know. It's just unbelievable. They could be squash players. They could be like me. They were so talented. They could be doctors. They could be engineers - anything like that, but they were just wasted, so many girls.

GROSS: So you managed to go to Toronto and study at a squash academy there that was founded by Jonathon Power, who is a champion squash player himself. It sounds like you've been thriving there. You still compete as a Pakistani. You're the number-one ranked Pakistani squash player.

Living in Toronto, you don't have to worry about not dressing appropriately. You can leave the house by yourself without worrying that you're going to be attacked for not being escorted by a man. So you have the freedom living there that Western women have. And I just wonder how it's changed you deep down inside to have that kind of freedom and not have to hide, not have to pretend that you're a boy, not have to explain, not have to worry about being attacked.

TOORPAKAI: Well, when I got threats from Taliban, 2007, after I performed really well internationally - and that was the time that I turned pro - was just my beginning when they stopped me from everything. And I couldn't just move freely. And I, you know, I stopped going out - even I stopped going to the squash club because I didn't want it to bring danger to any other young kids, you know. So I start...

GROSS: Because you were afraid if you were attacked, everybody around you would be attacked too.

TOORPAKAI: Yeah, if there is a bomb blast, you see there is so much glass. You see it's going to be - lots of other innocent kids would be killed too. So I didn't want it to be the reason for their death. And also the government of Pakistan, they also provided undercover security.

They put snipers around my house, all the way to the squash court and on the squash court. But this just didn't make sense to me because it was so many things were happening - terrible things - around me. There was a bomb blast every day. So it was happening all around me. And for three and a half years, I locked myself in a room in my house. And I kept playing squash.

GROSS: So during the period when you secluded yourself - 'cause you were afraid that if you were attacked because you were an athlete, it meant everyone around you might be killed, too. So to protect them and yourself, you secluded yourself. So how did you manage to keep in shape, to keep getting better at squash while you were secluding yourself in your bedroom?

TOORPAKAI: So I was doing a lot of lunges, a lot of one-step court running and also a lot of skipping, like 10,000, 15,000 jumps, jumping on the concrete and also hitting a lot of balls by the wall. But, you know, one day a neighbor came to our house. And they said there's a lot of pounding on our house at nighttime. What is that?

But then I had to switch the wall. But I kept going. But I got - I was extremely injured. I was not in good shape at all. There was so many bruises on my shin. And I was very, very injured. And my nervous system was very disturbed, too. But I just had that bright light at the end of my journey. I could see that I can get there. I can get there, and I'll make it.

GROSS: You used the wall of your bedroom as the wall of a squash court?

TOORPAKAI: Yes. In my room, I was imagining a squash court and hitting the ball by my room wall. And most of my squash was imaginary, but that gave me a lot of skill. I never lost that touch.

GROSS: So were you using a ball or not?

TOORPAKAI: It was a squash ball, yes, and a racket and my room - bedroom wall.

GROSS: You had a strong bedroom wall. I don't think my wall could take it (laughter).

TOORPAKAI: (Laughter) It was a concrete wall, so - brick wall - yeah, cemented.

GROSS: Very good, OK. I wish you well. I wish you good health. I wish you safety to you and your family.

TOORPAKAI: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Maria Toorpakai speaking with Terry Gross. Toorpakai's memoir is called "A Different Kind Of Daughter." Coming up, Irish filmmaker John Carney, who made the hit independent film "Once," talks about his new film, "Sing Street." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.