Athlete sharing inspirational story, playing local squash match

Maria Toorpakai has travelled all over the world as a professional squash player, and now she’s coming to Timmins.

Her book, A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From the Taliban in Plain Sight, released in 2016, shares her story of hiding as a boy so she could gain access to freedom in her conservative Pashtun hometown near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

She will be sharing this story and her experience as a professional squash player with the Timmins Tennis and Squash Club after being invited by Clifford Lamming.

Her rebellion against the idea of what a girl should be in the world around her started young. When she was four, she decided she didn’t want to wear the dresses that were traditionally worn, so she burned them and tried to cut her hair to be like the boys she saw playing outside.

“I saw the boys were hanging out and playing sports, so I was like I want to do that,” she said. “My dad smiled and he called me Genghis Khan that day.”

That new-found freedom, and her new name, gave her the chance to be active, and physical activity became a way to express herself.

“My dad would always have me doing heavy chores so that my aggression is gone and I am active and I am happy,” she said. “My dad has a large contribution to dealing with my personality.”

She travelled to competitions throughout Pakistan as Genghis Khan until a request for her birth certificate outed her to the general public.

After death threats to her and her family from the Taliban, she reached out to squash clubs and trainers all over the world for three and a half years, trying to find somewhere safe to continue her career.

She eventually ended up training with Jonathan Power in Toronto.

“It was a huge relief to see Jonathan. At first, I thought it was a joke or a prank or not the real Jonathan,” she said. “So when I saw him at the airport, I was surprised it was really him.”

Since then, she’s worked to bring women and girls from all over the world together in sports with workshops held online, and she’s working to raise funds for a sports school for girls in Pakistan through the Maria Toorpakai Foundation.

“During COVID we did a lot of online sessions for girls who were stuck inside, and we made sure there was no gap in their sports activities,” said Toorpakai. “They were from all different countries and it was incredible.”

She says these kinds of activities can build bridges between great distances and break down some of the hate that is seen in the world.

“All that matters is that we are friends, we are human, we share our stories, we talk to each other, and everything changes after that.”

She said the book, which has been published in many languages, reached many people in different cultures, and she’s received messages from all sorts of people about it.

“It’s engaging young students, mothers and fathers, and elderly people, and the LGBTQ community,” said Toorpakai. “I feel like my story has touched many hearts.”

She said she sees change coming, but it’s slower in some places than others. There has been progress, particularly with girls getting an education and playing sports in Pakistan.

“The parents would come to me and they wanted their children to be like me, and play sports and they asked where they could start,” said Toorpakai. “Once they’re running and jumping and chasing after the ball, they were so happy and so surprised that they can do all these things.”

When she got the invitation to come to Timmins from the Timmins Squash club, she was happy to accept.

“I’m excited to see this area and this place!”

Toorpakai’s exhibition match with Sudbury’s Mike McCue, who ranked first in Canada in 2020, will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 16 with the match starting at 6 p.m. and a meet-and-greet afterwards.

Amanda Rabski-McColl, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com