By Erich Prince
In an interview for Canada’s The Sports Network in 2010, Pakistan’s top female squash player, Maria Toor Pakay, explained, “Girls don’t get any rights. They cannot go out of the house. They cannot do whatever they want to do. They get married when they are 12 or 14. They are not allowed to get an education. They are not allowed to play sports. They have to stay covered; if they don’t, they are killed. All the time I wish that I could make a change.”
Born in 1990 in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan, Pakay grew up amid the tumult of an oppressive Taliban regime, narrowly surviving a market bombing in her town.
Pakay’s father, a progressive university professor, was imprisoned by the Taliban for his advocacy on behalf of women; he encouraged Maria’s participation in athletics, though she was forced to compete as a boy to avoid gender-targeted threats by the Taliban.
Eventually she began competing as a girl, and Maria rose the top of Pakistan’s rankings and became the number three junior player in the world. Numerous threats on her life accompanied her new fame. Forced to suspend her career, Maria spent three years practicing in her bedroom and emailing squash programs throughout the world. After receiving no responses, former Canadian world champion Jonathon Power invited Pakay to Toronto, where she continues to train. In addition to her commitment to squash, Pakay advocates for the rights of women in Waziristan and throughout the Middle East. In the past few months, she has begun speaking at events throughout the United States and Canada to raise awareness for the mistreatment and lack of education for women.
On January 31, the Haverford Chapter of GLI hosted Maria Toor Pakay for a luncheon where she discussed both the events of her life and her vision for a world where religious extremism does not promote and excuse the mistreatment of women. She emphasized the need to abandon archaic religious doctrines that deny women equal treatment in the law, society, and education. She attributes her escape from the Taliban to her exceptional athletic ability and she explained that many women in Pakistan continue to live under the confines of fear and discrimination.
Pakay graphically described the physical harm imposed by the Taliban on women for trivial misdemeanors to which member Joe Solomon remarked, “What I got out of the visit was a true understanding of how deeply rooted the sexism of the middle east is, specifically in Pakistan. I was, however, unaware of the social divisions in Pakistan where there were more progressive regions and much more conservative regions of the country.”
The Haverford chapter has actively studied human rights in Pakistan and, in November of 2011, the chapter attended a presentation by Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Hussain Haqqani, hosted by the Rotary Club of Wilmington, Delaware. In his speech, Haqqani described the need for joint Pakistani-American involvement to address concerns over human rights in the Middle East.
Being the only all-male chapter in GLI, the Haverford Chapter has discussed the necessity of the involvement of men in the quest for universal women’s rights. Through education, it is possible to end the cycle of oppression where the male dominated society continues to subordinate its women. In addition to its inherent injustice, the void of women in the workplace prevents further economic growth and productivity.
With her rising prominence, Pakay hopes to use her fame to gain support for her cause. She believes firmly in the attainability of rights for women. Impressed by her optimism for a more tolerant Pakistan, Alexander Dawejko described, “her ambition to change Pakistan and her belief that it can be done.”