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'I was born a warrior': How a Pakistani squash star who defied the Taliban ended up in Canada

Amid the Hollywood blockbusters premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is a less-flashy film about the incredible story of Maria Toorpakai Wazir, a Pakistani squash star who lived part of her life as a boy so that she could break free of the repressive environment of the tribal areas where she grew up.

Maria Toorpakai Wazir lived as a boy until age 16 to break free of limits put on girls in tribal area

Maria Toorpakai Wazir, seen here with her coach, Canadian squash player Jonathan Power, had an unusual path to success on the court. She grew up in Waziristan, a tribal area in northern Pakistan known as a safe haven for the Taliban, and dressed as a boy for part of her childhood to get around the repressive limits imposed on girls in the region. (Maria Toorpakai Wazir/A Different Kind of Daughter)

Amid the Hollywood blockbusters premiering at this year's Toronto International Film Festival is a less-flashy film about the incredible story of Maria Toorpakai Wazir, a Pakistani squash star who lived part of her life as a boy so that she could break free of the repressive environment of the tribal areas where she grew up.

The documentary Girl Unbound: The War to Be Her follows Wazir on her journey of defying all odds to go on to become a top-ranked squash player.

Wazir, 26, now lives and trains in Toronto, but she was born and grew up in Waziristan, a tribal region in the north of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. The region is part of the so-called federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan, where people live by their own unique strict code of honour, and everything is decided by tribal elders.

Waziristan has also been a Taliban stronghold and safe haven for the extremist group's militants for many decades. Wazir's family belongs to the Wazir tribe, the same tribe that many members of the Taliban belong to. Given her roots, the thought of daring to step out of the house and into the athletic arena was initially unimaginable for Wazir.

Wazir's parents, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, left, and Yasrab Nayab Wazir, belong to the Wazir tribe, the same tribe from which many members of the Taliban hail. The Taliban saw Wazir as one of their own who was defying their strict conservative ideas about how women and girls should behave by openly competing in sport. (Maria Toorpakai Wazir/A Different Kind of Daughter)

But she credits the fighting spirit of her ancestors for eventually giving her the strength to defy the strict conservative traditions of her culture and pursue her dream of squash stardom.

"I am a warrior. I was born a warrior," she said in an interview with CBC News.

'The girls lives were very limited'

From a young age, Wazir could not help but notice that boys and girls were treated differently.

'I realized that I didn't want to be in girly dresses anymore. I just wanted to be free, and the only way to freedom that I could see was in boy's clothes,' Wazir, seen here at age four, said. (Maria Toorpakai Wazir/A Different Kind of Daughter)

"I could also see that the girls lives were very limited," Wazir said. "The space where they could hang out was very limited, too. The girls were more dull and had no energy. They were just sitting there, but I knew that I was different. I just cannot do that."

When she was four years old, she decided life would be better as a boy.

"I just wanted to be as free as all those boys that I see outside," she said.

While at home alone one day, she collected all her dresses, took them to the backyard and set them on fire. Then she put on her brother's clothes and cut off all her hair.

I just wanted to be free, and the only way to freedom that I could see was in boy's clothes.- Maria  Toorpakai   Wazir

"I realized that I didn't want to be in girly dresses anymore," she said. "I just wanted to be free, and the only way to freedom that I could see was in boy's clothes, and I could see that all those boys they have short hair and certain style of clothing. I wanted unlimited space to hang out."

When her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, found out, instead of getting angry, he decided to support her decision.

He started calling her Genghis Khan, after the 12th-century Mongolian warlord. From then on, Wazir started living publicly as a boy, no longer subject to the restrictions imposed on girls in the tribal areas.

Fell in love with squash at 12

Growing up as "one of the boys," she spent most of her day outdoors, playing soccer, flying kites and getting into all sorts of trouble. She was very aggressive growing up and often involved in fights with the neighbourhood boys.

Wazir's father, seen her on the road to Waziristan in 2012, was not the typical patriarch and allowed her to dress up as a boy so she could have more freedom. (Maria Toorpakai Wazir/A Different Kind of Daughter)

Sports, her father figured, would keep the feisty 12-year-old out of trouble. He took her to the local sports arena, where she discovered squash and instantly fell in love with the game.

"I love squash, and through squash, I understood myself. It empowered me. It gave me the strength to fight back ... I see my whole life in a squash court," Wazir said.

After a couple of months of playing squash, Wazir entered her first local squash tournament as a boy — and won. There was no stopping her after that. She began competing often, and the victories piled up.

Wazir, in blue shirt holding racket, was the only girl among 400 boys competing in the under-15 tournament in Quetta, Pakistan. (Maria Toorpakai Wazir/A Different Kind of Daughter)

Wazir knew that if her secret was ever discovered, the Taliban would forbid her from playing the game she had grown to love. Her family, too, would face serious repercussions for letting her play. At 16, her identity was revealed when she had to show her birth certificate at a squash academy in which she wanted to enroll. Word got out, and trouble followed.

"I was harassed, I was attacked," she said. "I was bullied on every corner, on every step or anywhere I go. That made me realize that I wish I was not a girl," she said.

Success on the court attracted Taliban's attention

Not willing to give up on her dream of being a squash world champion, Wazir started training and competing as a girl. When she was 16, she won bronze at the world junior championship, and by 2012, she was ranked Pakistan's No. 1 female squash player.

Wazir received worldwide attention and admiration for being able to achieve so much international sporting success despite the obstacles she faced in Waziristan. But success brought attention from the Taliban, too — and threats.

Wazir's gender was eventually discovered, and she had to begin competing as a girl. She found success in her sport and became Pakistan's No. 1 ranked female squash player. (Maria Toorpakai Wazir/A Different Kind of Daughter)

"I come from the same bloodline and same tribe as the Taliban, and when they found out their own girl is playing in skirts and playing squash at that level, they just threatened us to death. They couldn't bear that," Wazir said.

Around 2009, threats from the Taliban escalated, and Wazir had to stop playing squash. For her safety, she was confined to her home for three and a half years. She emailed squash academies all over the word asking for help, but none came. It seemed that her dream of playing squash had come to an end.

Then she received a message from Canadian squash legend Jonathan Power. The first North American to reach world No. 1 ranking in the sport, Power has won 36 top-level squash events during his career, including the world championships in 1998.

Wazir's success on the court attracted negative attention and threats from the Taliban, and she had to retreat from her sport for three years. During that time, she wrote to squash players around the world asking for help. Canada's Jonathan Power, left, responded and helped her come to Canada. (Maria Toorpakai Wazir/A Different Kind of Daughter)

Intrigued by her story and impressed by her talent, Power decided to try and help.

"I did some research and realized that she was actually very accomplished in her junior career," he said. "I dug a little more and realized that she had the potential to be a great player ... So then, I sent a reply saying come over here, I would like to offer you a job and help you and support you and help you achieve your goals."

Canadian squash champ Jonathon Power describes the skill he sees in Maria Toorpakai's game 0:31

It took a year, but at the end of 2011, Wazir finally landed in Toronto. Away from home, in a new country where she knew no one, she was uncertain of what to expect.

But four years later, Toronto is her second home. She continues to train with Power and pursue her goal of being a squash world champion, and earlier this year released an autobiography, A Different Kind of Daughter, co-written with Katharine Holstein. But as she chases her dream, Wazir has not forgotten all those she left behind.

"Waiting alone in the dark are 1,000 Maria's. My dreams are for them," she said.

You can watch Maria Toorpakai's story on Friday's The National or by clicking on the link here.