Maria aka Genghis Khan: the girl they couldn’t squash
As it happens, it is a good film. But what a story: the girl from a traditionalist, fundamentalist region of Pakistan where the Taliban’s writ runs larger than that of the government; who burns her dresses at the age of four; lives as a boy for years under her father’s nickname of Genghis Khan; gets into fights with boys and outperforms them in sport; shows a talent for squash (“Wonderful, now you will be hitting the wall instead of other children,” said father), which along with her family’s unconventionality, sparks death threats and the anger of the Taliban, forcing the family to quit their home.
Maria Toorpakai now lives in Canada, after being offered a chance to train by a former squash champion, and, despite an injury, expects soon to be among the world’s top 10. She is setting up a foundation (“I want to teach girls that fear is taught”) and building a hospital for women and children.
It’s an extraordinary story, made possible by her amazingly brave and independent-minded father, with the support of her equally remarkable mother, Yasrab Nayab (who obtained university degrees and is a school principal), and her brothers and sister.
At some point, dad seems to have realised that if changing society was out of reach, changing his family was possible: “You can make the world better if you focus on your children.”
Asked how he came to espouse such progressive views (he was twice imprisoned by elders for being a renegade), Shams Qayyum Wazir told a Human Rights Watch Film Festival screening in London in March that he was an oldest, educated son and that when he looked around him in Waziristan he saw that people’s lives were not improving and decided to do the opposite of what was expected – which included the isolation and purdah of women. He also sat with students outside examinations “and learned things by talking to them”.
It’s obviously not as simple as that: Maria aka Genghis Khan told the post-screening audience that he was rebellious at an early age, watched Hollywood films, befriended Hippies, and read a lot. The film leaves many such questions unanswered: about why her father and mother were so radical, what they felt when under threat, about the views of Maria’s siblings (not least her sister, Ayesha Gulalai, an outspoken politician possibly even more at risk than Maria); and about the details of many events, which inevitably are truncated or compressed – or completely omitted.
Nevertheless, the film gives an inspiring and entertaining account of Maria’s story, and the absorbing and occasionally gripping footage from Waziristan (still a potentially dangerous area for the family and the filmmaker) more than compensates for the necessary but rather dull squash court shots.
* Maria Toorpakai’s autobiography, A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight, is published by Bluebirdblog comments powered by Disqus