Maria Toorpakai Wazir, among the world’s best squash players, visited Country Day on Tuesday. The human rights activist and author has spent more than a third of her life in some form of hiding. The first thing she hid was her gender, masquerading as a boy so she could play squash against the boys rather than being confined to her home as other girls were in the Wazir tribe. Later she would hide for her life, receiving death threats from the Taliban in reaction to her rise to the top of international squash and her embrace of multiculturalism.
Toorpakai never doubted the sincerity of the terrorist group’s threat, and she stayed safe by staying at home.
For three straight years, behind locked doors.
She continued to play squash for hours each day, against the first opponent who was as tireless as Toorpakai was: her bedroom wall.
Years of fighting American and Afghan troops took a toll on the Taliban, weakening them enough for Toorpakai to venture outside. Within months of that first step back into the world, she finished third in the world junior women’s squash championship.
Toorpakai success continued at the junior level, and two years after her strong showing in the world championships, she turned pro.
Toorpakai still plays professional squash, but she has also combined her passion for the sport with her unique life story to become something more than a pro athlete.
During her day at LCDS, Toorpakai spent twice as much time talking to Middle and Upper School students as she did playing squash on the new courts. What makes her compelling is that she speaks with more than just the indomitable will and laser focus one would expect from a competitor of her caliber. Toorpakai’s keen intelligence and resilient character allowed her to overcome numerous difficulties, any one of which could reasonably have stymied someone slightly less driven.
She shared stories of enduring ceaseless bullying and harassment from the boys, who were apparently allowed to carry on that way with impunity.
The havoc and destruction of war became another daily occurrence, and Toorpakai described how Taliban bombs leveled her mother’s school, her father’s university, and killed many family friends and neighbors. Toorpakai’s student audience sat rapt while she recounted the terrifying, nightmarish period in a matter-of-fact voice.
One topic that did bring fresh anger to Toorpakai’s story was the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. A devout Muslim, Toorpakai could barely conceal her disgust for the puritanical, benighted dogma that the Taliban regards as the word of God. It bothered her that they presume to call their ignorant interpretation Islam. What bothered her more, however, was that the beliefs espoused by this tiny group conforms neatly to — and confirms — the simplistic caricature of Islam that’s an essential element of Western prejudice and misunderstanding.
Toorpakai recently published her first book, “A Different Kind of Daughter,” and was chosen to become a member of the International Olympic Committee. In addition, Pope Francis tapped Toorpakai to join his new organization, Sport At The Service Of Humanity. Its mission is to explore “the power for good that [faith and sport] could deliver in partnership with one another.”
For as rich as her life story is, and for as compelling and inspirational it might have struck many in the audience, the highlight of Toorpakai’s day — not to mention every Country Day squash player — came when she stepped onto the court.
For more than two hours, Toorpakai took turns rallying with the large, revolving group of students who packed the spectator area waiting for their turn to hit around with the best player any of them had ever hit around with.
Toorpakai was all smiles and it was hard to tell whether it was she or the kids enjoying the casual squash-stravaganza the most. More than a few times, Toorpakai stopped play to provide pointers on technique or to talk strategy.
It was a vivid example of a truth she had shared with the Middle School a few hours earlier.
“We’re all from the same planet and squash is a universal language,” Toorpakai said.