This children’s biography of Maria Toorpakai Wazir, Pakistan’s world famous squash player, is simplified and suitable for children 2nd grade and up. At 42 pages with bright illustrations older kids will understand a little bit more about the cultural norms that were being oppressive and the strength and risks Maria took to play a sport she loved and defy the Taliban while disguising herself as a boy. Younger children will probably only get her determination and perseverance, which is impressive in its own right.
In 1990, Maria was born in the mountains of the Tribal Areas in Pakistan. Conservative society and strict gender roles amplified by the control of the Taliban in 2001. Maria’s parents supported rights for their sons and daughters, and allowed Maria to cut her hair, dress like a boy, and play sports.
Her father called her Ghenghis Khan after the great warrior and when the family moved to the city of Peshawar he even introduced her as his son to people. As Ghenghis, Maria was always picking fights and encouraged instead to play sports to channel her wildness.
She fell in love with the game of squash, and when she went to join the Squash Club she had to submit her birth certificate which revealed that she was a girl. The director let her join the club, as the only girl among 400 boys. But now her secret was out.
She was bullied and her family ridiculed, but she kept playing and kept winning. The President of Pakistan awarded her honors for her outstanding achievements, but that infuriated the Taliban and they threatened her family.
As a result Maria had to hide, and would practice at night, in secret, and for 3 years she played against the wall in her bedroom. Appealing to squash clubs around the world for help, she finally heard from Jonathon Power in Canada, willing to help her get away from the Taliban and be able to play.
She left behind everything she knew at 20 years old to train in Toronto. She still represented Pakistan in tournaments. She studied, she prayed, she succeeded. She now is back in Pakistan establishing health clinics, sports clubs, and schools for girls and boys.
The story is inspirational, and well told, it shows how culture limited her, not religion, and that in a larger city, culture was a little less conservative. Muslim and non Muslim children will be inspired by her efforts, her willingness to look like a boy and her determination to excel. Muslim kids will enjoy that it shows her praying, but might be surprised to see her in shorts and tank tops. The book would be a great conversation starter about women’s rights and how it isn’t just in Pakistan that women struggle to have equal opportunity and respect. It also might many children’s first exposure to the sport of squash.
There is an afterward at the end with more information. A list of additional reading about other inspirational women, a selected bibliography and a highlight timeline of female firsts in sports.