Thursday, September 21, 2023

Maria Toorpakai: ‘Being confined to home is nothing new. I was locked away for three years when I had death threats from the Taliban’

Maria Toorpakai speaks out in her role as a UN ambassador and an IOC campaigner for women’s rights

MTF volunteers hand out aid parcels in homeland where she received death threats
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor

Life, in many ways, has turned full circle for Maria Toorpakai, the Pakistani squash player who suffered death threats from the Taliban as a teenager.

As a child, she grew up in the tribal South Waziristan region near the Afghan border, where the Taliban hold control. She dressed like a boy to enable her to play sport and competed under the name of Gengis Khan. But when, at the age of 12, she revealed that she was a girl, she came under the attention of the Taliban, an aggressive, religious fundamentalist group based in neighbouring Afghanistan, who committed brutal human rights abuses against women.

She then famously fled to Canada to avoid the worsening threats on her life.

Having spent three years in Pakistan hiding from Taliban supporters who threatened her life, she is now living under the Coronavirus lockdown in Toronto … and the Maria Toorpakai Foundation is distributing aid packages in her homeland.

When Maria escaped the clutches of the Taliban, she came under the guidance of former world champion Jonathon Power, who predicted she could become a future world number one.

That dream failed to materialise. Instead, she became a United Nations Ambassador and a member of the IOC Women’s Commission. Until the lockdown, she continued travelling the world to promote women’s rights.

Squash is giving Maria Toorpakai a platform to promote women’s rights

In the past few days, young volunteers from the Maria Toorpakai Foundation (MTF) have distributed face masks and gloves across the region around Peshawar, back home in Pakistan.

Maria, who is unable to travel from her home in Canada because of the lockdown, said: “We are trying our best to spread awareness about the global pandemic, plus information about the preventative measures to control its spread. Culturally, our people are used to hugging and shaking hands.

“During these uncertain times, our people still seem to be unaware of keeping a safe distance, confining themselves to their homes, and washing hands more often.

“Poverty is another factor that is forcing the daily wagers to leave homes in search of work despite all the dangers. I am happy to say a lot of aware people on the ground are active and helping through various means.

“Our Maria Toorpakai Foundation young volunteers decided to take on the task to distribute masks, gloves and awareness!”

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Sadly, her Foundation has had to temporarily suspend plans to build a new sports facility in Peshawar. She added: “Due to the current situation, our work has slowed down. Though the entire team is still connected online.”

On a personal note, Maria added: “I live in Toronto. Life is good here. People are calm and the government is very active, helping everyone during this crisis. We have a good healthcare system here in Canada. Thanks to all the health workers who are putting every possible effort in saving lives while risking their own.

“I live with my two amazing roommates, Rose and Viki. We take care of each other and often ask this question “how are you feeling’?

“The streets are quiet. I still see some people, though, walking their dogs or carrying groceries.

“Being confined to home is nothing new for me. When I got death threats from the Taliban in 2007, I was locked away for almost three years at home in Peshawar, Pakistan. I have strong faith and a happy imagination that always keeps me positive. I want to believe ‘everything happens for a good reason’. I like to count my blessings. I trained my mind to only remember good things and to forget and forgive the rest.

“My days start with early morning prayers around 5.30am. I read the Quran and then I do one hour of fitness exercises.

“Fortunately, this quarantine is also keeping me away from all the junk foods. I try to eat healthy meals, mostly vegetarian.

“I like to read, paint, and watch movies. I try to learn something new every day. I have never been to school and when I was young my parents taught me at home, the very basics. But after I started playing sports (squash) my focus became training hard and winning.

“I am now self educated and I learn mostly from online. There are online tutorials for everything, painting, science, math, history and playing music instruments.

“The last time I visited Nepal, for a CREA Conference, I bought myself a flute. I have lots of time now to learn that!

“My family is still in Pakistan. I talk to them on video calls. Technology is amazing. I am so far away from my family and yet it feels I am always with them.

“I am very positive and hopeful about everything. I believe for some strange reason God has given us humans a second chance.

“It’s spring time, people are at home while the nature is thriving. The coronavirus does not care whether you are rich or poor, man or woman, black or white, healthy or unhealthy, young or old, from east or west.

“It is a great equaliser. It has united us.

“There are no more politics but countries are helping each other. The wealth is under distribution. People are spending more and mindful time with their children and families. There are so many positive things I am thinking of.

“I hope we will all learn from this and will never go back to what we considered normal before.

“I pray for Unity, Humanity, Peace.”

Footnote: CREA (Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action) is a feminist human rights organisation based in New Delhi, India. It was founded with three main goals: to explore issues of gender and sexuality from a human rights perspective; to expand communication between countries in the Global South around these issues; and to foster a new generation of feminist leaders in organisations.

Today, CREA looks at the intersections of reproductive health, sexuality, and human rights, advancing dialogue on issues like preventing gender-based violence and meeting the needs of women and girls with disabilities.

Pictures courtesy of Maria Toorpakai Foundation


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  1. How could I get in touch with Maria? I would love to connect with her to perhaps set up an online meeting or have her come to tell her story in our community of Hanover, ON. Our book club has read her book and are meeting via zoom on Monday for discussion.
    Thank you for your space.
    Sally Kormann

    • Dear Sally

      Thank you for contacting Squash Mad. I am happy to inform readers that you and Maria have been connected and I look forward to hearing the outcome of your Zoom discussion on Monday. An amazing story for discussion.
      Best wishes,

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