POV: The War To Be Her
Airs Monday, July 23, 2018 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV
Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Credit: Girl Unbound: The War To Be Her
—Despite Taliban threats, a Pakistani woman becomes one of the top female squash players.—
In one of the most dangerous places on earth, where the Taliban maintains a substantial presence, a young woman faces obstacles to pursue a simple passion: sports.
Born and raised in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal region of Waziristan, Maria Toorpakai is the country’s top female squash player. Yet she has had to hide her talents from the Taliban, which is strongly — and violently — opposed to women in sports.
At a young age, she disguised herself as a boy so she could play, only to be plagued by death threats from the radical extremist group.
The feature film will be accompanied by the short film “Beatrice,” a portrait about a Paralympic champion and the only fencer in the world who competes without arms or legs.
Told from Toorpakai’s point of view, “The War To Be Her” volleys between an adrenaline-pumped tournament and the young woman’s precarious — and sometimes dangerous — life in Waziristan.
“A woman cannot walk without a shawl, cannot walk without a man beside her,” explains Toorpakai. “Women are so scared to say anything or show their emotions, because they know they’re going to get killed.” She adds, “Playing sports is an extreme act. I broke all the laws and God helped me in that.”
In an early scene, Toorpakai looks at photos of her younger self — often dressed in typically masculine clothes — and recounts her early struggles.
“I wanted to play outside with boys, running around freely. I didn’t want to just sit at one place for hours and hours, playing with dolls at home. So I took all my clothes outside — my frocks, my girly dresses — I took them all outside and burned them.”
When Toorpakai’s success in squash catapulted her into the national spotlight, the Taliban, angered that a girl from Waziristan was playing sports, came after her.
For the safety of her family, the children at the squash courts and her own safety, she stopped playing squash from age 16 to 19.
But Maria never gave up on her dream; she sent hundreds of emails to squash coaches and organizations looking for a way out. Eventually, one person answered her email and she moved to Canada to train at the National Squash Academy in Toronto.
“Since I moved to Canada, my squash improved a lot,” Toorpakai says.
While living in Canada, Toorpakai stays in touch with her close-knit family, which includes her mother, an older sister, four brothers and her father, Shamsul, who appears to be just as rebellious as she is.
“I told [the Taliban] I disinherited her. She went abroad and I won’t allow her to come back,” Shamsul recounts at one point. “I played a trick on them and said this in order to get rid of them.”
“The War To Be Her” is Heidenreich’s feature directorial debut.
“When I was filming in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Maria brought girls to the squash court who were covered, shy and unsure of themselves. But when they began to play squash and picked up their rackets they hit with such strength that, for the first time, I felt the visceral sensation of what it means to truly see a girl become empowered. Playing and participating in games is natural to all kids. Allowing girls to fully posses their power within their bodies as well is a necessity,” Heidenreich said.
“This is a story that’s not only about Maria, but about all the things that her family members do to support her and that she in turn does to support them living in this extremely conservative society,” Heidenreich said.
The filmmaker added, “The thing that I really hope with this film is that people will connect with Maria and her family, they see that they are led by their faith to do good and to do right in the world and to help people out. I think that on a basic level, we just don’t see enough of that in the world.”
“In a time when gender rights are at the forefront of global discussion, ‘The War To Be Her’ is a timely testament to the tenacity and talent of girls and women everywhere,” said Justine Nagan, executive producer/executive director of POV/American Documentary. “On top of that, Heidenreich captures a loving and caring family committed to their faith and their daughter’s dreams. As a window for millions of Americans into other parts of the world, it’s important that POV showcases these positive, empowering stories.”
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This film will stream online on POV.org in concurrence with its broadcast. Full episodes of POV are available to view on demand for a limited time after broadcast.
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Director is Erin Heidenreich. Producers: Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal, Jouri Smit, Matthew J. Malek, Jonathon Power. Editor: Christina Burchard. Original music by Qasim Naqvi. Executive Producers for POV: Justine Nagan and Chris White. Produced by American Documentary, Inc., POV is public television’s premier showcase for nonfiction films.
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