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Maria Toorpakai, A different kind of daughter

Maria Toorpakai’s story is remarkable. If it wasn’t true, if the series of events that have shaped her life had been penned in a novel.

Maria Toorpakai’s story is remarkable. If it wasn’t true, if the series of events that have shaped her life had been penned in a novel – instead of a memoir – it would be quickly dismissed as farfetched, implausible, even impossible. And, when it’s turned into a Hollywood movie (this hasn’t been confirmed, but I’d put money on it), fiction and fact – at least in the minds of the audiences – will blur even more.

But, for 25-year-old Maria, there is nothing fictional about her story. Maria grew up in South Waziristan, Pakistan, “2,500 miles cutting into the lawless and blood-soaked border of Afghanistan”. Maria’s home is a remote mountain tribal community that governs itself, led by elders and ancient – often “tyrannical” – tribal laws. It’s culturally and geographically cut off from the modern world, and considered by many the most dangerous place in the world. It is the present-day headquarters of the Taliban.

A woman’s story from this part of the world is remarkable enough. Women are not permitted to leave the house, to be educated, to have any autonomy. Their only role is to marry, clean and cook and have children. Those who refuse to marry are stoned to death. Maria recounts her mother’s recollection of watching a stoning of a young girl. In her memoir, A Different Kind Of Daughter, Maria writes of the incident: “Without a flicker of hesitation, the girl’s father took the boulder and raised it way up with tremendous force, a torrent of rage twisting through him. Standing no more than five feet from his half-dead child, he hurled the heavy rock like a catapult into her already ruined face. And she was gone.”

There are layers upon layers of fascination here: not only insight into one of the world’s most guarded, remote communities, but how Maria came to tell these experiences. The key to Maria’s journey, it seems, are her parents. As Wazidi laws would govern, their marriage was arranged and they didn’t meet until their wedding day. But what could have been a life of submission and duty for Maria’s mother never materialised.

Maria’s father was, and remains, nothing short of a radical. Cutting ties with his prominent, but traditional, family, he promoted women’s rights and the need for education – to such an extent he was believed to be insane. On their wedding day, he offers her a Levi’s denim jacket. “What do you expect me to do with this, Shams? Wear it over my burqa or on my head?” she asks him. “This is a jean jacket, Yasrab,” he replies. “Levi’s from America. My wedding gift to you. And I expect you to wear nothing on your head unless you choose to. Inside these walls, and with me, you are the queen of the house.”

Maria's parents in Waziristan
Maria’s parents in Waziristan

What followed was years of upping sticks and moving to places where both Maria’s parents could teach – often, for Maria’s mother, under the guise of teaching needlework or cooking, as opposed to history and geography. Maria’s father encouraged his wife to study and complete qualifications, degrees and even a masters – while bearing children without any medical assistance and often living completely on the poverty line. Where did their courage come from to defy their families and their communities? Speaking to Maria in a central London cafe, she tells me, “Courage comes when you believe in God and have faith in humanity.”

And he applied the same level of faith and encouragement that he did to his wife to his two daughters. He’d bring home VHS for them to watch. He’d teach them after long days’ working. Maria’s older sister showed an interest in politics from an early age and, in response, their father once built a mock UN out of old bricks in their backyard. Her sister is now in government.

Maria's father talks with men in Waziristan
Maria’s father talks with men in Waziristan

In a fit of rage as a child, she set fire to all of her ornate traditional dresses. And, as ever, her father came up with a daring, dangerous and brilliant plan. Maria would grow up a boy

Her parents’ radical liberalism wasn’t just about education however. Maria never went to school. She looked after her young brothers and the house while her parents were out teaching. But they allowed Maria freedom in another way. As a child, Maria quickly realised she didn’t want to be a girl or, more accurately, she wanted the freedom the boys had, watching them play football, run about free and happy. In a fit of rage as a small girl, she set fire to all of her ornate traditional dresses. And, as ever, her father came up with a daring, dangerous and brilliant plan. Maria would grow up a boy. “I saw in his face,” she writes, “the very thing he always hoped I would harness – pure Wazir courage… the two of us stood together in the softly descending ashes, watching the smoke toward the horizon like a prophecy. He laughed and bade farewell to his second daughter and welcomed into his arms his new son.” And, from that moment on, aged four, until she was in her early teens, Maria kept her hair short and wore boys’ clothes.

The story takes yet another unexpected turn. As she grew up, Maria showed a keen interest and flair for squash. As Maria became a more and more competent squash player, she was revealed to be a girl and immediately her life was in danger. Her father decided it was safer for her to practise indoors. During years of essential self-inflicted imprisonment, Maria wrote to squash organisations all over the world. After two years of nothing, Jonathon Power, the world number-one squash player, got in touch. Today, she lives in Canada and is playing squash full-time, being coached by Power. Maria is now Pakistan’s number-one female squash player.

Marria in Power Squash Academy
Maria practicing in Jonathen Power’s Squash Academy, Canada, nowadays

What’s it like to have lived such a remarkable life, hiding from the Taliban, dressed as boy, having radical parents who educate girls and women, a flourishing squash career on the other side of the world? “It’s a miracle,” she tells me. “Who am I? Why did God choose me? Ever since I was little, I thought this was a miracle. Nothing bad has happened to us. Such a rebellious father and I think it’s a miracle that everything happened.”

It’s not strictly true that nothing bad has happened – their house has been attacked; her father has received threats from the Pakistan division of the Taliban to stop educating his daughters, to stop allowing Maria to play squash; he has been imprisoned and released; Maria was a given a gun aged 10 to protect her brothers. She’s been followed, chased, harassed. Her mother and father are still at risk. Maria tells me a story of being followed when on a squash tournament, shadowy figures appearing, men watching. She had to abandon the tournament and fly home.

What possibly now, I wonder. “I want to work in Hollywood. I’m a good actor and cinema is a great platform to reach millions of people. Like Angelina Jolie.”

With the incredulity of her story so far, what to some might seem like a pipe dream seems totally plausible with Maria. “Well,” I say, “maybe the next time we meet I’ll be interviewing you about your new film.”

“God willing,” she tells me.

A Different Kind Of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From The Taliban In Plain Sight by Maria Toorpakai with Katharine Holstein is out now.


Marisa BateThe Article was origionally published on the-pool.com
Written by:  By Marisa Bate

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