The other day, I caught an interesting segment by Express 24/7 on Maria Toor, Pakistan’s number one ranked women’s squash player. According to the feature, Toor, ranked 72nd in the world, is from South Waziristan in FATA. The tribal agency, the site of one of the military’s most recent operations against the Tehreek-e-Taliban, is not exactly the shining example of equal opportunity or gender rights. Toor told CNN that girls are expected to “spend their entire lives in four walls in their home. Their ability is destroyed.”
Rather than succumb to the status quo, as a young girl Toor would instead chop her hair in order to disguise herself and play sports with the boys. According to both CNN and Express, Toor’s father soon recognized that his daughter had talent, and moved his family to Peshawar where she could train and play more freely.
I found Maria Toor’s story telling not only because she “overcame the odds,” (excuse the cliché) but because it was reminiscent of numerous women’s experiences or portrayals throughout history. In the 19th century, authors like Charlotte, Emily and Ann Bronte, as well as Karen Blixen (who wrote Out of Africa) all wrote under male pseudonyms in order to get their work published. William Shakespeare often created cross-dressing heroines in his plays who then filled traditionally male roles, such as the character Viola in Twelfth Night (also adapted for the awesomely bad Amanda Bynes’ flick, She’s The Man, where Bynes’ character Viola dresses as her brother Sebastian to play on the boys’ soccer team). Finally, in the Oscar-nominated film Osama, a young girl in Afghanistan dresses as a boy in order to work and support her family.
In all of these examples, cloaking what made these women female (from their names to their hair) subsequently gave them the freedom to bend stereotypes and challenge taboos. In doing so, they opened the door for others to follow suit, eventually making gender a non-issue rather than an obstacle or a detriment. Unfortunately, the sad reality today is that making gender a “non-issue” is still a work in progress.
In Pakistan, there is still much progress to be made when it comes to women’s rights, but particularly women and sports, though young girls like Maria Toor and Naseem Hamid (who recently won a gold medal in the 100-metre race at the South Asian Federation Games and is now known as the region’s fastest woman) are further cementing the case for why funds should be allocated to support girls’ sports. From a development perspective, there are numerous reasons why supporting sports for both girls and boys is important – not only for their health and self-esteem value, but also for the team building and leadership skills they provide.
My favorite part of Toor’s story though was actually her father, Shams-ul-Qayum Wazir, “whose sacrifice made her success possible.” Toor told CNN, “I think I have a great father — so broad-minded.” So broad-minded, in fact, that he believes more tribal people should pick up a racket instead of a gun. He told Express, “We will not defeat Westerners with guns, but with sports. Let’s see who wins the Westerners or us.”
Hey, Bollywood/Lollywood. There’s your script for Lagaan II. Get cracking.