The Great Game
What’s your first reaction when you hear the word Waziristan? Depending on your grasp of world geo-politics and history, not much perhaps. But when you realise that Waziristan borders the North West Frontier, the territory between Pakistan and Afghanistan, then you just may associate it with tribal unrest, lawlessness and even international terrorism. After all, this is part of the area where The Great Game was played out between the British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. An area branded The Badlands by the Pakistan Government and by Washington as the most dangerous place in the world. Synonymous with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, it’s rife with militant groups while tribal customs often force women to remain at home.
Streetfighter to Weightlifter
So when you hear that Pakistan’s number one female squash player, Maria Toor Pakay, hails from South Waziristan you may wonder just how she got to where she is today. In fact, it was Pakay’s father, Shamsul Qayum, an elder of the conservative Wazir tribe and civil servant, who first noticed her combative potential – brawling with street boys in her home village of Shakai. He took her to the northwestern city of Peshawar and began training her as – a weightlifter – even disguising the 10-year old Pakay as a boy to enter her in the National Boys Weightlifting Championship. She won in her class.
A Meeting with a Legend
But then came a life-changing event. Pakay met the legendary squash player and eight times World Open Squash Champion, Jansher Khan, himself a native of Peshawar. She took up squash and in 2004, at the age of 14, became Pakistan’s top female squash player. Gradually climbing the international rankings, Pakay is now in the World Top 100 and recently made the semi-finals of the World Junior Squash Championship in India.
Squash Champion to Role Model
Pakay’s determination to defy tradition and champion girls’ sports in the conservative northwest of Pakistan has, perhaps not surprisingly, won her some enemies. Taliban militants who operate across swathes of the northwest oppose the co-education of girls and boys and advocate a harsh brand of law, often staging bomb attacks to try and advance their aims. Talking recently to Pakistan news agency AFP, Pakay said, “I have received some threats from unknown people who have advised me to stop playing and going out of the house, otherwise they would kill me. But they can’t detract me… I would never quit playing.”