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PBS.org Tavis Smiley interviews Maria Toorpakai
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Maria Toorpakai. The top-ranked squash player in the world reveals how she had to dress as a boy to overcome social repression to become one of Pakistan’s top-ranked athletes. Fascinating story. Maria Toorpakai coming up right now.
Tavis: So pleased to welcome Maria Toorpakai to this program. The professional squash player is ranked as Pakistan’s top female player and among the top 50 players in the world, yet she hails from a violently oppressive regime where the idea of women playing sports is still forbidden.
In her memoir, “A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From the Taliban in Plain Sight”, she tells the remarkable story of how she passed for a boy in order to play the sports she loved. Maria, it’s an honor to have you on this program.
Maria Toorpakai: Thank you so much.
Tavis: You tell the story so beautifully in the book, but in the time that I have, I want to let you tell us the journey that you’ve had to take. Take me back to your hometown and tell me when you first fell in love, how you fell in love, with sport to begin with.
Toorpakai: Well, I was young and I was very, you know, aggressive, very energetic. I thought I’m very strong and I am equally good as boys, but I could lots of girls have limited space. Since seven or eight, they have to stop going out, you know, and should stay covered, stay home. But in the society, you don’t see outside and I have to hang out with girls.
But, you know, I don’t want to hang out with girls because I want to go outside. I want unlimited space and just play sports. For that reason, I kind of disguised as a boy. You know, I started dressing up like my brother and my name was Genghis Khan, so that’s how I started my journey.
Tavis: Genghis Khan [laugh]. When did you first realize as a child that the boys, that the males, the men, didn’t want you around? You tell a wonderful story–it was not a wonderful story, but you tell a pretty interesting story in the book about how you were slapped and spit upon when you first discovered that you weren’t welcome in their circles. Tell me about that.
Toorpakai: That is one story. I have many stories like that, you know, and this is like you see maybe the people didn’t like my father and he was always very outspoken. He educated my mom, my sister and I was very young and thought, you know, they just don’t like me. But they were saying what are you doing here. Now go and just get home, the volleyball guys.
But I want to share a very different story today. When I started disguising as a boy, I had some friends, the boys, and they go out and just play. In one of the houses, all the kids, it was lunchtime and we all went to one kid’s home. Her mother was going to cook. It’s like a bread.
She was going to cook some bread, but she peered outside the house a little and then her husband saw that and her husband beating her so badly. He dragged her on the floor with her hair and stepped on her so badly and she was crying, screaming. Then after that, she started cooking bread for us. I could see like how bad that was as a child when I kind of witnessed that.
Then she was making that bread for her children and everyone saw that how she was beaten in front of her children, her sons. So it’s kind of also changed my–you know, there are many more stories like that. With time, I saw that, you know, the girls are shoot for their choices.
You know, they can never ask their parents what they think, what they want to do, how they feel. They just have to listen for the orders. From young age, they are told that you’re going to get married. I’ve seen girls crying so badly. They were like, you know, I don’t want to marry. They want to go to school, you know, and this culture keeps going on and on.
Tavis: In this culture, what made your father so different?
Toorpakai: My father has a very–he was one of those people from his same cultural guy at the time. His family’s village is very strict, but my father was the eldest son. So he went to [inaudible] City. He was sent into a school and then he also met hippies there and he watched some cowboy movies, Hollywood movies.
So he kind of keep learning and thinking about this. He’s a very logical man. So he came back and he started thinking and talking very different than people. You know, completely opposite to any idea.
People thought he was mentally sick or retarded and he need help. But also it was bringing so much anger in people when he’s talking women’s right, when he’s talking about challenging the laws that they think it’s really just laws. But my father is saying it’s not just really laws. It’s just the culture.
Tavis: How did your father, your mother, your family, how did they keep your being a girl a secret? I mean, you dressed up as a boy, you hung out as a boy. But how did that secret not get out?
Toorpakai: It wasn’t hard to keep because I was good in being a boy, you know [laugh]. I learned a lot. Nobody could really recognize me even when I started playing squash and I went to this guy at the Power Squash Academy and the director of the academy. He actually kept staring at me. When my father told him that that’s my daughter, he kept staring and he’s like are you sure that’s your daughter [laugh]?
Tavis: So there does come a point in the story, though, where you had to offer your birth certificate. You had to prove that you are who you are. Tell me about that story, how the secret got out.
Toorpakai: Well, as I said, the director of the squash academy, he asked for my birth certificate and my father tried to keep me a secret as Genghis Khan, but he couldn’t hide it anymore because I want to play squash. So he told the director of the academy and he actually got really happy when he realized that, you know, I’m a girl and I want to play squash and sports.
He actually gifted me a squash record with the Jonathan Power signature and took me to the squash court and he showed me how to start squash. So for two months, it was kind of a secret, you know, kind of because I didn’t look like girls at all. And the director of the academy hardly would come to the academy for inspections.
But one day, he came there and he saw me playing and then he asked his staff how that girl is doing squash. How she is playing? And they were surprised. They were like there is no girl here. And he said, well, I show you there’s a girl. He took them to the squash court and said that’s a girl. And that’s how, after that, people started coming to know about me, that a girl is playing squash.
Tavis: And how did you feel when the secret was out and you could be who you in fact are? How did you feel about that?
Toorpakai: I was always the same person. You call me Maria, you call me Genghis Khan, it didn’t matter to me. As a human, as a person, I was the same person, you know. But what changed me drastically was how the society started treating me differently.
It wasn’t easy even going out of my house, going all the way to the squash court. It wasn’t easy because on the way, I feel lots of men. They would try their best to make you feel uncomfortable, so you should go home. You’re a girl. And all the boys, they will talk to you very filthy, very dirty, and they will be bullying you.
As I grew up like Genghis Khan, like tomboy, so I used to help my family in the outside chores too bringing groceries, water or fetch the wood and look after my younger brothers too at home. I was also a good daughter too at the same time. But then I couldn’t actually–just like my freedom was gone from me.
Tavis: Where’s your family now?
Tavis: And you live where?
Tavis: Toronto. How often do you go home, and what’s it like when you go home?
Toorpakai: I go once home in a while in Pakistan, but I stay limited to certain areas. So most of summertime, I live in Islamabad with my sister. She has an apartment now from the government. She’s in politics now. But before that, it was…
Tavis: No, no. Tell the story right quick. Your sister’s not just in politics. Tell me about your sister, what she’s doing these days.
Toorpakai: Well, she’s very exceptional in that way. From young age, she was the first experiment for him. Because she was eight, she was eight and she couldn’t go outside. She had to stay covered. And because I look like boy, so it was easy for him to let me go, but it was difficult to let her go outside.
But then he spent most of his time with her educating her, bringing her books, and then learning especially about United Nations and the women’s rights, child labor, growing population, environmental pollution, all those issues.
She used to raise voice for that and do debate competitions around the country. And in the tribal regions, she used to go to boys school and give a speech. Among the elders in [inaudible], she would talk. She was nine years old when the [inaudible] called her a daughter.
So after that, she also was the first girl who went to media, so she was 13 when she was a newscaster on the national television for two years and she did also current affairs shows as an anchor person. She was teenager. She was 15, 16.
And then she also at age 21, [inaudible] offered her member national assembly and provincial assembly seat and the Prime Minister of the Peoples Party, he asked her to write him speeches. They were asking like what do you want? We can make you CEO of some big company.
She was so young, but they were asking those things. She said no. She thought that she has time. She want to study and she’s now doing PhD in comparative religions. So she’s the youngest parliamentarian and the only one from the tribal areas on this level.
Tavis: That’s what I wanted to get to. Your sister is the youngest parliamentarian and she’s working on her PhD. Obviously, your mother and father did a wonderful job with their kids. How does your father process all of this? How does he see all this now? Your success, his other daughter’s success, how does that make him feel?
Toorpakai: I think my father in the tribal areas, you see the fathers spend less time with their children. They are mostly outside and the believe that, you know, there should be a fear in your children from you. You know, the children should have fear from their parents, from their especially, and they should always obey, right? The obedience should be there always.
And they spend very less time with them and most of the time there would be–one day my father said that I see these people spending time on roosters, pigeons, quails, dogs, preparing them for fight, you know. They make them fight.
But my father said why don’t they spend time on their children? It’s very important. We should think of their future and we should make them prepare for their life. So my father kind of learned from that and he started spending all his time with us. He’s our friend. We share everything with him. You know, he’s amazing.
He also said one day to me and my sister, he said if you like someone, then tell me. I’ll go and ask his hand for you guys. But if you don’t like and if you want to marry, then also let me know. I’ll also find a handsome guy. But you know who gets married? Who are bored with life. So you have to think of I give you every opportunity, every freedom. Do whatever you want. Just explore your talents.
Tavis: How do you–what does freedom mean to you? After the experiences that you’ve had and the journey that you have been on, what does freedom mean to you?
Toorpakai: You know, freedom is love, the real love. I give you a story. I brought a parrot in a cage, but I was still looking after that parrot really nicely, feeding that. I decorated that cage for that. My father saw me and he said do you really love this parrot? I said I really love that.
He said, no, if you really love the parrot, you should give it freedom. You should let him go. That’s actually love and that’s actually freedom and that’s what I want to tell people, that love that you think keeping women inside the house in that cage, no matter how beautiful that is, that’s not love. If you really love them, let them go.
Also, with the pigeons, if you have pigeons, if you cage them, one day if they find a way, they will escape. They will fly away. But if you let them go, if they’re free in the house, they’ll kick around and then come back to the same house. So girls are the same. They’re very loyal. They’re very gentle human beings, you know. You just love them, they will love you back 100%.
Tavis: You mentioned two or three times in this conversation, [inaudible], who I had the pleasure to meet. I have a picture. It sits in the office. I had dinner with her one night for like five hours. One of the great joys of my life, meeting her and having dinner with her here in Los Angeles.
What’s your sense–you are obviously of a different generation. She was murdered for expressing her freedoms. How do you think your country is doing? Are we making progress since the death of [inaudible]?
Toorpakai: Yes. People are trying their best. But the thing is, there are still conservative people and there are liberal people and it’s a fight between that, you know. And there are people who are completely confused which way to go.
So especially you see we have–the literacy level is very low all over Pakistan and the GDP that we spend on the education is only 2% for the whole country, 2.14%. So if you see that, the education, the literacy level is so low, the money that we spend on education, that is also taking us so much down and the negativity is breeding.
But there are good people too because if it’s completely bad, we wouldn’t be surviving. The country wouldn’t be surviving anymore. But there are good people. That’s why the country is still there and running. I’m sure, you know, the more and more good people would hear good stories and positivity, that’s how we can bring change.
You see it’s coming because now you see there is an oppression going on in Waziristan and last time when the Taliban attacked one of the universities, [inaudible] University, actually local people brought the guns and started fighting against the Taliban alongside the Army.
So I think people are now tired of that nonsense and what’s going on. They want to come out of that situation. The only thing is now we have to make sure that they get the good quality education like proper facilities, sports, and everything so they can use their energy, stay busy in positive stuff so they can find a way and hope.
Tavis: Why you do think your country, your society and other societies around the world–because it’s not just Pakistan, obviously–but what is it about girls, about educating girls, that so scares men? Why are we so scared to let girls get educated?
Toorpakai: I think it’s all about, you know, something that has come for centuries. Some men are actually afraid of, you know, going against those cultures that have been there for centuries. And it takes a lot of effort to go against that. So one is that the second is losing the power, you know. For them, when they control the woman, they think they’re the most powerful.
That’s a very wrong kind of psychology because I think, our concept, I would say the strongest man is who empowers the woman. And also the strongest woman is who always respect men. It’s a mutual thing and we should understand that.
Tavis: What’s your message to the young girls in your country? We’ve heard your story of how you had to, you know, hide under the cover of being a boy, allegedly a boy, just to experience the freedoms that you wanted to enjoy. What’s your message to the young girls in your country?
Toorpakai: Well, I think being a human, it is our responsibility. It’s our moral responsibility to cooperate in the society and to play our part, play our role in the society, in this world. And that’s not only the religion thing, but that’s as a human.
Like we should understand that it’s important. And all the girls I see, I have seen women who does not have education, who does not have skills, they’re the most vulnerable in those societies.
I have seen lots of women who lost their husbands, their family men, in war, in Army operations, in drones, in bomb blasts. And also their sons are missing, you know, because the Taliban, they used to take those drug addicts, although they’re normal people, kidnap them, inject them with drugs and then left them in the market with the suicide jacket.
So those things are happening and now still they are crying for their missing people or they’re mourning the death of their family men. But what happens? They don’t have education, they don’t have skills. They can do three things. Sell their bodies, beg, or work in peoples’ houses.
I’m 100% sure they’re not safe in there too because it’s so–I have seen few men really good, but other than that, every man trying to find a way to you, every man. And if you are alone and you have no support, you have no one to protect you, not even the law, everyone will find a way to you and abuse you even sexually or [inaudible].
Tavis: Now that your story is out, thanks to the book and the interviews that you’ve done, how is your father treated inside the country now?
Toorpakai: My father is now people are understanding from tribal areas. So now, you know, two years ago when we got the threat from Taliban again, when we checked with the intelligence, they said that it’s a genuine threat. And this guy who is calling you, he’s a driver of [inaudible] who was killed in [inaudible].
So this guy is–my father had a really tough conversation with him and he said if you touch my kids, I’m gong to come after you. Because the thing was, he was threatening us that give us $50,000 and also my sister should step down from her position. They don’t want female leaders. And also I shouldn’t play squash.
And my father said, well, first thing, I don’t have that much money. That means I’m going to die, you know. And he said if I’m going to die, then it means I have to come after you first. You talk to my kids…
Tavis: Your father watched John Wayne, then he became John Wayne [laugh]. These cowboy movies did something to your father, yeah.
Toorpakai: So my father said if you touch my kids, I’m going to come after you to Afghanistan or Pakistan, wherever I can find you. I know every place then. Then the guy said, well, I’m not the son of my mother if I spare you then, and the phone hung up. Then my father, now he has a lot of people who walk with him with guns every time.
But he’s doing his work, people are supporting him, people donated a lot of land so we can build them schools and hospitals. Now I’m building a hospital there for women and children. They really want education now.
You know, last time I held a squash tournament for them and they allowed their sons–they trusted me and they allowed their sons with me and I taught them about sports and gave like squash lessons. It was amazing. Gave them food, shoes, clothing. They were really happy.
So the change is coming and people are even naming their daughter’s name on my name and my sister’s name. So my dad is like gaining his position as–before, he was considered mentally retarded, but now they think he is wise. He is smart man.
Tavis: And how is your squash playing coming along? Are you having fun?
Toorpakai: I am actually improved a lot, you know, since I am in Canada. Not only as squash player, but also as a human too. People are amazing, loving and also I can play with freedom, with peace of mind. And I won a lot of tournaments, you know. I had really tough matches. I lost by one or two points from the world’s top 10 players, number 9.
So I’m there, you know. Now I’m a little injured, so I’m coming back. I have a foot injury, but now I’m coming back soon. It’s coming. I believe in myself [laugh].
Tavis: I figured that out [laughter]. I believe in you. We all believe in you. Your daddy believed in you. This is quite a story. I’ve been waiting to talk to you and I’m honored to have you on this program. Maria’s book is called “A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From the Taliban in Plain Sight”. It’s a wonderful read. If this conversation hasn’t convinced you that this is a book you want to read, then I can’t help you.
But, Maria, good to have you on. I hope the injury heals fast and you get back to playing squash the way you do. If I ever get to Pakistan, I got to meet your daddy. I want to meet your daddy one day [laugh]. Nice to meet you.
Toorpakai: Thank you, sir.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.