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A Pakistani Squash Player Profiled In 'The War To Be Her'


Maria Toorpakai wants nothing more than to freely play her beloved sport, squash, in her home country. She was born in the tribal area of Pakistan where the Taliban are dominant. Girls are prohibited from playing sports and sometimes even from getting an education. At a young age, Maria dressed and acted like a boy - even changed her name - so that she could play squash. And she was good. She won championships and awards. But at the age of 12, boys realized her actual gender and began to harass her. Maria's dad worried about her, but she was brimming with confidence.

MARIA TOORPAKAI: So my dad thought, poor girl, what's going to happen with her? I thought, I'm the - I'm perfect. (Laughter) I always thought like that.

COLEMAN: Maria is now one of Pakistan's top female squash players. And her story is told in a new documentary on PBS called "The War To Be Her," directed by Erin Heidenreich. Maria Toorpakai joins me now from Peshawar, Pakistan.

Welcome, Maria.

TOORPAKAI: Thank you.

COLEMAN: And Erin Heidenreich is at our studios in Culver City, Calif..

Hey there, Erin.

ERIN HEIDENREICH: Hey there. Thanks for having us.

COLEMAN: Maria, I want to start by asking you, why squash? What do you love about this sport?

TOORPAKAI: Since my childhood, I was always very, very - an aggressive child and always found in the middle of fights bruised and bleeding and always leading the, you know, groups of boys, and I was famous as strong and fighter. And then after that, I found squash. Squash is second-biggest sport in Pakistan. So I kind of realized that I - this is the sport I want to play. And I saw kids playing, and I loved their outfits, the rackets, the energy on the squash court - diving and jumping and, you know, reaching to the ball. And my father, he just looked at the squash court and then looked at me, and he smiled and he said, well, I think this is the best sport for you because from now on, you're going to hit the wall and not people. So that's how I ended up in squash.

COLEMAN: Erin Heidenreich, what were your impressions when you first saw Maria play?

HEIDENREICH: I didn't know much about squash actually before meeting Maria. But the physicality of it, the strength that you see that comes out of her, not only in every single part of her body - the running in her arms, the way she can hit - but it's that, like, internal strength that I think you really feel that literally kind of, like, jumps out of her when she's playing, and you really feel her come alive.

COLEMAN: How did you come up with the title "The War To Be Her"?

HEIDENREICH: For me, I think it really evokes the idea that there is a lot of obstacles and fighting kind of all around Maria and where she's from and everything. But then there's also a lot of internal struggles and challenges that Maria has gone through. And I think that's what's really fascinating about her - is the idea that this is about capturing a moment of somebody taking a risk and we don't know the outcome. And I'm interested in, what is that process like when you're in the midst of making these decisions, of putting yourself out there, of trying something maybe nobody else has ever done before?

COLEMAN: Maria, you come from what appears to be a really exceptional family. Your mom is a school principal. Your sister is a politician. And your father is a real character.


SHAMSUL QAYYUM WAZIR: (Singing in foreign language).

COLEMAN: Now, your dad bursts into song more than once in this documentary. Your dad has been a true influence for you.

TOORPAKAI: Yes. I would say that everyone needs a mentor, and my mentor is my dad. He inspires me. He guides me. And he educated me. You know, he let me be myself and explore my qualities.

COLEMAN: You got your first death threat when you were 16, and your strength just shines through in this documentary - the strength of your family. How did you and your family manage the pressure of being in the spotlight?

TOORPAKAI: Well, all our life is a struggle. And I think - you know, my father always says that life is fun when there are more challenges and there is more adventure. So he always finds a way. And the pressure is always there when you challenge the culture, challenge the existing system because people are very happy with their comfort zone. They don't want to - any challenges. They don't want any trouble. So my father has that strength, and he trained us strong, and he moved with a vision for Pakistanis.

COLEMAN: Erin, as you made this documentary, how did you make decisions about what went in the film and what got cut when your subjects' lives might have been on the line?

HEIDENREICH: I mean, one of the things early on and throughout the process that, like, she and her family have done is that they have made such a clear decision in terms of them believing what they believe is right. They spent a lot of time doing critical thinking about what their value system is - and, you know, one of them being, you know, women and men should be treated equally. And because they are so firmly entrenched in their value system, they've decided to - what I would say - cross that line, that they will do everything to convey that message. And this film is just one other, you know, aspect of the fact that they're willing to accept whatever happens because they know that what they're saying and what they're doing is right.

COLEMAN: Maria, what is next for you competitively with squash?

TOORPAKAI: Well, I had many setbacks. I injured many times, and it was a little bit difficult. At the same time, I'm on the path to heal, I would say. Spiritually, I'm praying a lot. And I train a lot. And I have foundation. I'm working with that. And, you know, these ups and downs comes and goes, but we always have to think about the positive things that happen in our life. And the good friends that I have all over the world, they always supported me. And it's kind of their comfort to me so I know that I'm not alone fighting this.

COLEMAN: Maria Toorpakai and Erin Heidenreich, thank you so much for joining us.

HEIDENREICH: Thank you so much.

TOORPAKAI: Thank you. It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.