At the age of four, Maria Toorpakai burned all her dresses and cut off her hair to disguise herself as a boy. For the next ten years, Toorpakai lived among her neighbors under the new name “Changez Khan.”
Toorpakai, the former number-one female squash player in Pakistan, spoke at All-School Meeting (ASM) this Wednesday. In her presentation, Toorpakai detailed her life as an athlete who faced adversity due to her gender.
“If you are going through tough times in your life, if you are not accepted or included, you have to have the confidence in yourself. Everyone is created with a special quality or gift, and you have to explore that. Each of you has a purpose on this Earth, and you need to accomplish that,” said Toorpakai during ASM.
During her time on campus, Toorpakai played an exhibition match against John Roberts, Director of Squash, at the Snyder Center (covered in the Sports section of this week’s issue of The Phillipian). Roberts expressed hope that students will learn from Toorpakai’s journey.
Roberts said, “Off of the court, I think she’s a great person to learn from, as someone who essentially came from nothing and didn’t have the same opportunity that so many of these kids have. We’re in this incredible facility that just opened, and she had to practice against the wall of her bedroom. I definitely think we can learn a lot from her life and her story and become more appreciative of what we have.”
According to Toorpakai, her father named her Changez Khan the day she cut her hair. Instead of reprimanding Toorpakai, he took to supporting her pursuits in athletics. Living in a Taliban-controlled Pakistani village, Toorpakai was not able to play sports without pretending to be male. Toorpakai said that she did not have the same opportunities as her male relatives.
“One thing that resonated with me was the lack of conformity she had. The fact that she was the second-best weightlifter in all of Pakistan for both men and women when she was a teenager is just incredible. It’s very moving and inspiring to hear that she wasn’t held back by any of the conformities that were placed on her by society,” said Margot Hutchins ’20.
After starting her athletic career as a weightlifter at 12 years of age, Toorpakai soon transitioned into playing squash. However, after revealing her gender identity, Toorpakai began to face increased difficulty at practice and in her daily life.
Toorpakai said, “[People] started using abusive language and actions. Men of all ages would bully me. The shopkeepers started treating me very disrespectfully. I couldn’t buy anything, I couldn’t help my family, and I didn’t have any friends left. Every day, some guy would behave inappropriately at the courts.”
While the Taliban began targeting athletes in her village, Toorpakai stayed inside her house for three years. She practiced squash against her bedroom walls while sending thousands of emails to Canadian and U.S. squash academies, hoping to get a job as a coach. After three years of sending emails, she finally received an opportunity to go to Canada.
Reverend Anne Gardner, Protestant Chaplain and Director of Spiritual and Religious Life, who helped bring Toorpakai to campus, said, “[Her story] is a tale of enormous courage in the face of truly grave danger [and] significant threats to her own life and to her family. It’s the story of her love for her own religious tradition, Islam, and her family’s adherence to that tradition, but what it means to live where the tenets of that religion are skewed.”
Toorpakai, who now travels as spokesperson and author of her recently published book, “A Different Kind of Daughter,” said that she hopes Andover students to use their strength and uniqueness to contribute to the world.
Toorpakai said, “I hope for the students that all their life they will try to become better humans… At the same time, they must understand that we cannot work alone. We have to reach out to those who need help. We can’t just be selfish. We have to take care of the other people who are ignorant or who need. We have to teach them. Although I know it will be difficult — they will have anger, all of those emotions — that is where the importance of education comes in.”