Heroine from Waziristan —Rafia Zakaria


Maria Toor Pakay, Pakistan’s 19-year old emerging squash star challenged every stereotype regarding the potential of her fellow tribeswomen who languish in tents awaiting aid. Young, determined and undeterred by the unceasing pressures of patriarchy, Toor is beginning to compete in squash championships nationally and abroad

These scenes are familiar to Pakistanis …the hordes of internally displaced people from Waziristan fleeing in trucks and lorries; their bedrolls and possessions tied up with ropes. The faces of women are nearly always invisible, covered in either a burqa or chador. The stories by women also tell a tale of a seemingly undifferentiated landscape of fear and terror. Most had never before left their homes even to go to a market. Many do not know how to count currency to buy staples for their large families and hardly any have ever had any access to health services. The destitution of Waziri women at the hands of conflict has become one of the most tragic catastrophes to affect Pakistan in recent years.

It was heartening therefore to see the narrative of woe challenged by a woman who originated in the same culture and environment as the women mentioned above. Maria Toor Pakay, Pakistan’s 19-year old emerging squash star challenged every stereotype regarding the potential of her fellow tribeswomen who languish in tents awaiting aid. Young, determined and undeterred by the unceasing pressures of patriarchy, Toor is beginning to compete in squash championships nationally and abroad. Last week, she was nominated to Women’s International Squash Player’s Associations’ Young Player of the Year Award. Maria Toor Pakay, originally from Waziristan, has already defied innumerable odds to be able to play. Undeterred by the threats of the Taliban and refusing to submit to dogmatic interpretations of faith that denounce athletic competition, Toor has persevered in her efforts to show Pakistanis and the world what indeed is possible if Pakistani women are merely given the opportunity.

In a recent interview to a major Pakistani newspaper, Toor recounted the many struggles she faces as a female athlete in a country that invests notoriously little in athletes in general, let alone female athletes. Not only are the bureaucratic governing institutions sceptical of the ability of young athletes to compete in international competitions in general, they are even less likely to commit already scarce resources to the uplift of women’s sports. A variety of factors contribute to the situation; including the lack of political will to stand up to religious lobbies that want to eliminate women’s athletics from the public sphere. Others in Maria Toor Pakay’s cohort complain of the lack of facilities, lack of interest in providing coaching to female athletes and a general lack of incentives to pursue sport in general. Toor’s own story substantiates all of these factors, with one crucial difference that allowed her to rise above the fate that sentences most girls of her heritage to silence and isolation. Her father, an open-minded man, noticed his daughter’s abilities and realised early that her skills would be wasted if they did not move to a larger city. It was the family’s move to Peshawar and the resultant training that Maria was able to receive there that enabled her to transcend the usual constraints and become a competitive athlete.

Maria Toor Pakay is undoubtedly just at the beginning of her career and I, along with women around the world, marvel at her ability to be undeterred by the many obstacles facing her. Her courage and the challenges that face her represent, in a microcosm, the potential and tragedy of Pakistani women. On November 5, 2009, an inside source within the Pakistan Squash Federation announced that it would not be sending any young players to compete in the British Open Junior Squash Championship that was due to start in the upcoming weeks. The reasons cited, expectedly, were lack of funds (the players have been told to go if they can finance their own trips) and the fact that they had performed poorly in previous championships. Because of this, no funds were being allotted to send the young players and all, including Maria Toor Pakay, are expected thus to sit out the competition.

The excuses are not new and in their circularity represent the decrepit situation of sports in general and particularly female sports in Pakistan. The question of whether the young players are not good because they are unable to compete or whether they languish behind other nationals because of their lack of exposure to international competitions can perhaps never be answered. However, what can be focused on is the urgent need of female role models like Maria Toor Pakay for Pakistani women. At a time when their very participation in the public sphere is in question; the powerful image of a woman proud of her physical ability is an incredible call to arms against intimidation. Her refreshing candour, earnest spirit and overt faith all combine to create a young lady that represents a glimpse of all that Pakistani women, even from impoverished areas, can be if they are merely given the chance.

It is undoubted that Pakistan is facing several crises right now, and arguments or pleas before the government to put aside funds for sports is likely to meet significant opposition. However, anyone having witnessed the indomitable spirit of Maria Toor Pakay would attest to the reality that despite many pressing budgetary concerns, the flailing image of Pakistan as a country of unabated repression unpunctuated by stories of survival and resistance must also be contended with. It is precisely this illustration of the survival of spirit and the perseverance of Pakistani women in the face of incredible adversity that the world needs to see.

Pakistani women inhabit perilous times; in the past few years they have borne the brunt of the impact of conflict. Whether it be the burning of their schools, the signs erected in markets prohibiting them from attending, the floggings in public squares or the drastic increases in domestic violence, they have borne these inflictions on their spirit without remonstrance. Maria Toor Pakay represents then the hardy courageous flower that dares to bloom even in the most forbidding climate. Given the incredible potential she has to provide much needed inspiration to millions of Pakistani girls, she should be given the opportunity to represent Pakistan in the upcoming British Open Junior Squash Championships.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Article published in Daily Times, reproduced by permission of the author and DT

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