Female squash player from Waziristan defies the odds

KARACHI: Top Pakistani squash players Aamir Atlas Khan and Maria Toor have been nominated for Professional Squash Association Young Player of the Year and Women’s International Squash Players Association (WISPA) Young Player of the Year, respectively, by the World Squash Federation.

Both Aamir and Maria belong to the North West Frontier Province, home also to Pakistan squash legends Jahangir and Jansher Khan, where they train amidst constant threats from the Taliban. While it has been a comparatively easy ride for Aamir, by virtue of being a male in a part of the country where residents adhere to strict Islamic law, for the 19-year-old Maria it has been a journey of immense courage and perseverance.

Growing up in South Waziristan, Maria was a very different girl, often getting into brawls with boys and generally being very dominating, some very unusual traits for women in NWFP. She was equally lucky to have an open-minded father who noticed his daughter’s sporting talent and ability and did not want it to go to waste.

‘I didn’t want her talent to go to waste,’ Shams-ul-Qayum Wazir said in an interview to CNN. ‘If I would’ve kept her in the village, all she could do was housekeeping,’ he added satisfied with his decision to pack up from South Waziristan and move to Peshawar in late 1999.

Upon her move to Peshawar, Maria was immediately inducted into the Hashim Khan Complex, named after the first great player to emerge from a Pakistani dynasty of squash players which dominated the international game for decades.

It was in Peshawar where her father really began to realise the true potential his daughter had. Representing Warsak High School in Peshawar, Maria became the youngest ever winner of the National Women’s Squash Championship toppling top seed Muqaddas Ashraf of Punjab in straight sets in the final at Karachi Club squash court in 2004. She was 13 at the time and while the cash prize of Rs. 8,500 and a crystal trophy felt good, it was really the satisfaction of being better than everyone that was to accelerate Maria’s drive. She quickly swatted through her competition winning an Under-15 tournament and then at 15 winning the Under-19 Hashim Khan National junior championship in 2005.

She scaled through the national rankings, Dunlop racquet in hand with an almost Muhammad Ali-like confidence, often calling her self the world’s best squash player in some of her post-match press conferences. It was this self belief and great form that finally brought her to the world stage when she joined the WISPA in 2006. She was immediately at ease on the international circuit as well, reaching the semi-final stage of the 2nd WISPA International Women’s Squash Championship at the POF Jahangir Khan Complex in Islamabad.

In early August 2007 she was given the Salaam Pakistan Award by the President of Pakistan, alongside tennis player Aisam Ul Haq Qureshi and footballer Muhammad Essa.

The year 2009 saw her win her first international tournament when she beat the same opponent she had defeated as a 13-year-old. Muqaddas Ashraf once again succumbed to Maria’s power and agility losing the Chief of Army Staff International squash tournament.

Winning an award at this year’s World Squash Awards being held the RAC Club in London is something Maria is looking forward to but her main objective is to carry on the great legacy left behind by the Khans and to put Pakistan’s name back at the top on the world stage.

For her father her achievements have already shown the true spirit of people of Waziristan, a far cry from what is has become today.

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