Today we’re talking to one of my personal heroes, influential athlete and advocate, Maria Toorpakai Wazir. If you don’t know her name, allow me to introduce you.
Maria loved sports from the age of four years old. But social norms in her region of Pakistan do not allow girls to become athletes. So young Maria dressed as a boy and was free to compete. At age 12, she entered her first sporting event and won the all-Pakistan boys’ weightlifting championship.
Soon after, she fell in love with squash, the second most popular sport in Pakistan. But when people eventually realized Maria was a girl, she faced harassment, physical attacks and social exclusion. The Taliban issued threats to her life.
Despite all this, Maria became Pakistan’s unbeatable national squash champion, turned pro at age 17 and won many international tournaments.
She is a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Women in Sports Commission and, through the Maria Toorpakai Foundation, helps girls in Pakistan and around the world play sports and explore their full potential.
There’s so much more to her story than we have space for here! I recommend you pick up her memoir, A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight to read more about her amazing life.
And now, please enjoy our interview with Maria, where we discuss the upcoming Olympics, mental health for athletes and what parents can do to keep their daughters in sports.
Podium: You've used sports as therapy for refugee children. You run squash clinics for Pakistani girls, and during the pandemic, you provided virtual fitness sessions to women as a way of maintaining their mental health. Tell us more about your work using sports to help with social issues.
Maria Toorpakai Wazir (MTW): Right now the world is recognizing the power of sports, especially in improving global health, education and reducing poverty. Sports is a medium that can take us there and help us achieve the SDGs.
I think this is really important because in some developing countries, the youth population is 60% and 70%. If we do not engage these young people in healthy activities, we're encouraging disaster. I believe that human nature is a little bit more attracted to negativity. Young people need positive outlets for their energy.
I have a lot of dreams for my home country. I want to establish a sports school for girls and women in my province of Waziristan. It will be the first in the whole region. Pakistan has more than 200 million people, but only 7% of people have access to sports and women are less than 1% of that.
Women and girls in school ask for sports. But even where there are facilities, there are no programs and no safety for women who want to participate. I feel like I’m in a good position to help because I know the culture. I go back and visit villages. It's one of my desires to see girls excel.
I want to arrange border games between people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. When we get people playing sports together, we find common ground; we develop friendships, not just between individuals but between nations.
Podium: I feel like we always see what you're describing during the Olympics, which start this week in Tokyo! What are you excited to watch?
MTW: Well first I have to say, it is a little bit heartbreaking to me that squash is not part of the Olympics. I myself wish I could have competed as an Olympian.
I'm excited to watch football, tennis and more. But I'm really excited to see so many women compete. Canada’s team is 60% women and the U.S. team is more than 50% women. That’s exciting.
Podium: What advice do you have for athletes who want to use their platform to speak out on issues that matter to them?
MTW: To start, I would say that sports can give us the power and confidence to make change within ourselves first. We have to empower ourselves and know ourselves fully. Sports can give us that opportunity — when we run, when we dive for a ball, we start to understand our physical power.
To explain what I mean: I’ve run squash clinics for girls in Pakistan and a lot of them have never tried a sport before. The girl arrive in burkas and then take them off and have on tracksuits underneath.
I was coaching one girl and she started to play. She got into the game and dove for the ball — and then started crying. She said, “I didn’t even know I could do that!”
It was the same for me. In playing squash, I learned about myself. I learned that when I get angry, I lose more points and I lose energy. We come to understand our strengths and weaknesses.
By being fully you, you can inspire others. So many athletes are deeply connected to their communities and represent all the people in their hometowns. They should speak from their own personal experience, about whatever is in their heart.
I was not a speaker at first. I had stage fright speaking in front of people, but I could play squash in front of hundreds of people and not get nervous at all.
So when I started speaking I asked myself, am I here for myself or for all the girls who need help? My advice to other athletes is to think about the people you represent. I think you will get the courage when you have purpose.
Podium: Let's talk about athletes and mental health. Recently, Olympians and other high-profile athletes have been opening up about depression and suicide – and the lack of resources available to them. As an elite athlete, can you help us understand the pressures that are unique to this experience?
MTW: The pressures have been magnified by the pandemic. All the athletes had been training so hard and for many, this was their last time to participate, they wanted to retire. So they had to either retire without competing in the Tokyo Olympics or find a way to keep training during lockdown, without their coaches and training facilities. It’s a lot of stress.
If you're not mentally feeling well, no matter how hard you work or how talented you are, you're going to struggle. Athletes have to be mentally free to perform. If you want to see a good performance, you have to let people take their time and focus on their mental health.
I struggled a lot with harassment and abuse for being a girl playing sports in Pakistan. And sports actually helped my mental health because it gave me purpose. I felt less pressure on the squash court.
I also had a supportive family. Having those people in your life who will always be there for you was another important part of my mental health.
And the last element is faith, whether you believe in God, karma, divine energy — whatever it is just having a sense of something bigger than yourself, that the universe is taking care of everything.
Faith is a big one for me because sometimes I’m tired and can’t play squash. And other times, I just don’t feel like talking to people. So I need that third element to lean on when the other two aren’t working.
So for me, maintaining my mental health means: train hard, have a support system and believe.
Podium: You've talked a lot about your parents' influence on your achievements. What advice would you give to parents who have daughters who want to play sports?
MTW: After people learned I was actually a girl playing squash, I faced a lot of bullying and harassment. Once I came home and my father asked me what was wrong. I told him that day people were throwing stones at me wherever I went.
He took me right out of the house and to the local market, a bazaar in our town with lots of different shops. We went to the men’s barber and he told me I could have any haircut I wanted. I got a short buzzcut, a soldier’s haircut.
Then he took me to a jewelry shop and picked up a big, gold earring and told me to put it in one ear. I said “Dad, that will look weird.” But I put it in and he said, “I like it!”
As we left the jewelry shop, he said we’re going to march through the bazaar. With my new haircut and my earring I watched as my dad held his head up and stuck his chest out and marched through the market.
At the end, he told me “See? No matter what you do, people will always stare. But you just know where you want to go and keep going.”
I talk to him every day. I'm 30 years old now. When I go to Pakistan, I still wear shorts if it’s hot, which is not acceptable for women in my village. People come to visit and I’m there in my shorts and he says, “This is my daughter.” He's not embarrassed.
But I also want to say that parents need support systems too, especially in patriarchal societies. In Pakistan, the government, business and community leaders could do more to make it acceptable for girls to play sports.
They could spend money on campaigns and facilities and programs to create an environment that parents feel is safe for their daughters. They can help change mindsets if they want to. Parents like mine shouldn’t be ostracized for supporting their daughters.
Our leaders need to do politics in the service of humanity. You have to teach positivity and equality. Men should respect women’s spaces. But when the Prime Minister of Pakistan says things like women are to blame for rape and harassment, women will never be safe and parents will never be comfortable.
Even at a cost to themselves, my parents let me be myself. They always told me I'm the best and I can do it. They told me that since my childhood. They gave me belief in myself that has carried me all my life.