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POV: The War To Be Her

Airs Monday, July 23, 2018 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Maria Toorpakai competing in squash.

Credit: Girl Unbound: The War To Be Her

Above: Maria Toorpakai competing in squash.

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.

Directed by Erin Heidenreich, “The War To Be Her” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and makes its national broadcast on POV on July 23.

The War To Be Her: Trailer

In the Taliban-controlled area of Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan, where sports for women are decried as un-Islamic and girls rarely leave their houses, young Maria Toorpakai defies the rules by disguising herself as a boy so she can play squash freely. As she becomes a rising star, however, her true identity is revealed, bringing constant death threats on her and her family.

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.

The War to Be Her - Meeting Maria Toorpakai

We are introduced to Maria Toorpakai, an elite level athlete and international squash champion.

“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.

Photo credit: Girl Unbound: The War to Be Her

Shamsul with Maria and Ayesha.

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 - Life Goes On

The clip covers several topics that will be important to review with students, including parental support, life under the Taliban, links between Taliban control and poverty, extremism as a distortion of Islam, the benefits of sports and differences between urban and rural communities.

“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.”

Filmmaker Interview: Women's Empowerment Through Sports

Made with courage under hostile conditions in the Taliban-stronghold of Waziristan, "The War To Be Her," directed by Erin Heidenreich, celebrates the bravery of Maria Toorpakai, a champion female athlete who defies the Taliban to pursue her dream, and by extension all who fight for women’s rights in the region.

“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.”

WATCH ON YOUR SCHEDULE:

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.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION:

POV is on Facebook, Google +, and you can follow @povdocs on Twitter. #WarToBeHerFilmPBS

CREDITS:

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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