PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Pakistan’s squash champion Maria Toor Pakay cut her teeth fighting boys in a tribal district synonymous with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, defying convention t
o become a trailblazer in her sport. She hails from South Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s tribal belt branded by Washington as the most dangerous place in the world. It is rife with Islamist militant groups, while tribal customs often force women to remain at home. None of that stopped 19-year-old Pakay, however, who is now Pakistan’s top-rated female squash player and the world number 85.
“I never acted like a girl and always played and fought with the tribal boys,” she told AFP in the northwestern city of Peshawar, now her home.
“My early days roaming around the Shakai streets wearing boys’ clothes and fighting against them eventually made me an independent young woman.”
Dressed in shorts and smart T-shirt, hair boyishly cut above the neck, she would stand out in her home village of Shakai, on the outskirts of South Waziristan’s capital Wana, where many women wear the all-encompassing burka. Muscular Pakay smacks the ball against the wall almost 30 times in a minute. Face perspiring with aggression and gripping the racket tightly, she moves swiftly across the squash court. It was Pakay’s father Shamsul Qayum, a government servant and elder of the Wazir tribe, who first noticed her athletic potential. Concerned about her days spent brawling with street boys, he decided to channel her anger into sports. Risking the scorn of his conservative Muslim tribe, he took his daughter to Peshawar and began training her as a weightlifter. But with few opportunities for female weightlifters in Pakistan, he was forced to disguise 10-year-old Pakay as a boy and enter her in the National Boys Weightlifting Championship under a fake boy’s name, Changez Khan.
“And Changez Khan won the championship!” Pakay says with a laugh. “It was the first step for me, my first achievement, and then I never got scared by any pressure, restrictions or tribal tradition.”
It was a meeting soon after with former world squash champion Jansher Khan that set Pakay’s life on its current course, and in 2004 she became Pakistan’s top female squash player and started climbing the international ranks.
She has risen seven places in the world rankings in the past month, and made the semi finals of the World Junior Squash Championship in India last year. She is a regular player on the Malaysian circuit, and aims this year to participate in the Cayman Islands Open and the Texas Open Championship. But her determination to defy tradition and champion girls’ sports in the conservative northwest has won her some enemies. Taliban militants who operate across swathes of the northwest oppose co-education of girls and boys and advocate a harsh brand of Islamic law, staging bomb attacks to try and advance their aims. “I have received some threats from unknown people who have advised me to stop playing and going out of the house, otherwise they would kill me. But they can’t detract me… I would never quit playing,” she tells AFP.
“I feel pity for other women of the area, they are confined in the walls and have no rights. I feel pity for my cousins, who don’t have rights and can’t go out, and who have to wear burkas.”
Although she is glad to be free from the restrictions of tribal customs, Pakay says she owes a great deal to her upbringing in the badlands along the Afghan border, which sit outside direct government control.
“My strong muscles are a gift from hiking the rocks of Shakai. I love the solid mountains and feel sorry that I can’t go there now,” she said.
The streets of Shakai where Pakay once fought neighbourhood boys have now become a battlefield for the Taliban and Pakistan’s armed forces.
The military sent 30,000 troops into South Waziristan in October last year to try and quash Taliban strongholds, and the fighting rages on. The instability was one of the reasons Pakay’s father wanted her to break free of the tribal region and he has nothing but pride now in his daughter’s achievements, despite the reaction from his Wazir tribe. “They call me honourless and say you have lost pride and gone away from the traditions of Islam and the tribe,” Shamsul Qayum told AFP. “But I don’t care, I have won for my girl and her victories are my pride.” By Khurram Shahzad (AFP)