Hiding in plain sight: How a champion Pakistani athlete eluded the Taliban for years
“I come from the same blood as Taliban,” Maria Toorpakai Wazir said in a recent speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a human rights conference that happens every year in May.
When asked how it was to live among terrorists, Toorpakai Wazir explains that in her area “the system is so conservative that you don’t know who is a Taliban and who is not.” There is a gun and drug culture, she continues, that has spread like wildfire in the recent decades. Because of the lack of government presence and infrastructure (mainly schools and hospitals), there is not much left for inhabitants to do. “These are lawless areas.”
Toorpakai Wazir was born in Waziristan, Pakistan, a semi-independent tribal region spreading across the border with Afghanistan. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, mujahidin escaped to Waziristan, which became a sanctuary for terrorists. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 also pushed many al Qaeda and Taliban elements into the region. The area is considered especially dangerous for women, both because of the presence of terrorists and the prevailing culturally conservative mindset. Women’s education, for example, is considered a vulgarity.
Also contributing to Waziristan’s tattered image is the fact that to those who aren’t residents, the region is difficult to enter. NGOs, human rights activists and media are seldom present. “It’s a restricted zone, so how can you hear the voices from those who want change, or don’t want to be terrorists?” she wonders.
A liberal family
Toorpakai Wazir’s strong sense of freedom is rooted in her upbringing. She grew up in a different kind of family. Her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, brought Toorpakai Wazir and her siblings up with exposure to liberal views; the women of the family had the same rights as the men. She explains that she grew up in a household where everyone could question everything, and no questions went unanswered. She touched on her home life last year during her appearance at the 7th Annual Women in the World New York Summit. Speaking with Financial Times managing editor Gillian Test, Toorpakai Wazir said, “My father is very supportive and he believes in equality.”
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