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A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight

by Katherine Holstein; Maria Toorpakai

Maria Toorpakai has survived horrors most of her North American readers will never encounter except between the covers of a book: public beatings, confinement, dengue fever, death threats. Born in 1990 in Pakistan’s oppressive northwest tribal region, Toorpakai has led a life that seems impossible. In a world where most girls are confined to their homes, forced to wear burqas, and forbidden from playing sports or engaging in other “male activities,” Toorpakai disguised herself as a boy, changed her name to Genghis Khan, and took up street fighting. She had a one-two face-punch that made her unbeatable, but always a target for challengers.

JuneReviews_ADifferentKindofDaughter_CoverTo dissuade her from this vulgar and dangerous hobby, her father urged her toward weightlifting, where she competed under her assumed name and went to great lengths to avoid undressing for weigh-ins or engaging in any other activity that would reveal her true sex. When she grew bored of weightlifting, her father advised her not to worry: another path would reveal itself. He believed in the Muslim tenet “It is written.” Allah had already told Maria’s story, she must only listen.

Toorpakai’s path revealed itself to be squash. The first time she saw the sport played, she fell in love with its beauty. To play, however, she had to present a birth certificate, which meant giving up her male identity. Fortunately, she found a coach as open-minded as her father, and he accepted her on his team. Maria Toorpakai was reborn and Genghis Khan put to rest. Toorpakai became the first female athlete in Pakistan to play publicly in shorts and a T-shirt. She also became the national champion.

Her path, though, was anything but simple. She fought sexism. She fought violence. She fought persecution under the Taliban. Even when the family faced death threats, her father insisted she continue to play. He stood up for freedom, without question, whether that freedom be the right to an education, the right to an occupation, or the right to play a game.

In A Different Kind of Daughter, squash becomes more than a sport. Toorpakai’s father teaches her that squash is not only about winning medals. Rather, it is about defending one’s personhood in the face of a violent regime of terror.

The first time Toorpakai upstages a group of men playing volleyball, the mullah beats her in the street and calls her a dirty girl. Following his violent attack, each of the men spits on the young woman bleeding on the ground. The men then continue their game, ignoring the beaten girl slumped to the side of their court. That is only Toorpakai’s first encounter with the violence of her society and the limitations it places on girls. Her resilience and ferocity in the face of relentless attacks make her an admirable figure.

Toorpakai is not the only successful woman in her family. Her mother is a university-educated teacher, who continued to work hard in the school system despite frequent bombings of the buildings in which she taught. Toorpakai’s father deceived those in power to facilitate his wife’s career.

Ayesha Gulalia, Toorpakai’s sister, is a member of the National Assembly. Given the restrictions inherent in Pakistani society, either woman could claim the title “a different kind of daughter.” Their father’s unconventional thinking allowed both sisters to use their talents and pursue paths typically unavailable to women from tribal Pakistan.

Because of their unconventional ways, the family moved often. They lived in extreme poverty and constant threat of violence. Through it all, the father – a different kind of father – adhered to Nietzsche’s assertion that no price is too high for the privilege of owning oneself. Toorpakai’s appreciation of and respect for her father fill the memoir with enough love to balance the story’s most alarming horrors.

Toorpakai writes forcefully and clearly about the most painful elements of life under the Taliban. She does not sentimentalize or overstate. She does not engage in self-aggrandizement or self-pity. The story itself is shocking, the violence toward women enraging. Toorpakai brings that world to life for the reader with intensity and precision of expression.

Currently, Toorpakai trains in Toronto under two-time world champion Jonathon Power. She is the top female squash player in Pakistan and ranks in the Top 50 in the world. Together with Power, Toorpakai founded the Only One Girl Foundation to raise money and educate girls in countries where they face extreme oppression. This remarkable, powerful woman has penned an equally remarkable and powerful memoir.