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Girl Unbound
At a young age, Maria discovered her love for one of Pakistan’s most popular sports—squash— even though women were restricted to play. To support her passion, her family allowed her to pass as a boy. Maria's identity was exposed as she rose to success and the Taliban brandished her a target. Yet, Maria continued to compete and used her talents to advocate women’s rights to education and sports. Aware of the consequences this may bring from the Taliban, she believes it is her right as a human being, and as a Muslim woman, to be free.
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Girl Unbound

Running Time
Feature Film
80 minutes

Girl Unbound

At a young age, Maria discovered her love for one of Pakistan’s most popular sports, squash. Through this game, Maria quickly began to rise in success as one of the nations most revered young players. And unlike those that came before her, Maria’s path began in a place and time where women were restricted to play sports of any kind. But with the blessings of her family, she did what no one else dared to do by dressing and ultimately passing, as a boy.

When she was discovered, Maria’s true identity could no longer contend with the success she was finding in her squash career and the Taliban took notice. She like those who stood with her quickly became their targets. The carefree attitudes of a child at play evolved into a young woman with more than just a pastime; she became a young woman with a presence and a purpose. Years later, Maria is still using her talents to help advocate women’s rights to education and to play sports. She trains on a secure air force base, with a protection and surveillance team. In this part of her world, we begin to see that her success as an athlete is dependent on more than just a medal placeholder- it is a statement, full of defiance and hope. Maria is a champion who stands out amongst the rest, challenging everything that the Taliban is against.

Maria’s fight is not singular. It encompasses the lives and safety of her entire family who endlessly support her. And from this foundation, her sister Ayesha has begun to rise as an advocate in her own right. She works to elevate women’s rights and equality, especially within the tribal areas. Her policies are focused on giving back to those whose rights have been taken- for the women with no voice, the uneducated restricted to learn, and for those before her who have been persecuted for change. To some she is a threat, but to many, a hero giving voice to those who have none.

The fight for change and the courage to do so has been with Maria and Ayesha since their youth, a mindset encouraged by their father Sham. Their dreams are embraced with a determined and gracious spirit. The rarity of these opportunities is received as a blessing and an occasion to give back. Each in their own and often collective ways, stand to fight for what is right.

Maria’s fight becomes one of not just learning how to survive, but how to thrive in life. She describes her identity as a mix of feminine and masculine qualities. For whatever confusion that might cause others, she conveys a remarkable self-confidence in being her own person. She continues to defy everything the extremists and her societal upbringing tell her about what it means to be a girl. As the film unfolds, Maria makes a choice to put herself in the spotlight once again. Aware of the consequences this may bring from the Taliban, she believes it is her right as a human being, and as a Muslim woman, to be free.

Filmmaker Notes:

Girl Unbound: The War To Be Her captures a woman who is at risk of being killed simply for being herself: a woman and an athlete. I believe that at the heart of the human condition, we just want to be ourselves and be seen for that. Maria has fought for this her whole life.

Maria’s story immediately drew me in with the question: how much do we risk to be ourselves? And when I met her family who has always supported her, how far would you go for your loved ones? This transcendental story felt both personal and universal all at once: How do you find your way as a woman when society delivers an expectation that is different than your own? In her case, like all Tribal women, the line is definitively drawn: keep yourself covered, unseen, unheard, uneducated, or you will be killed. Theses lines may not be as obvious in more developed areas in the world, but collective expectations still restrict many women’s lives. Over the course of filming the last few years, Maria’s resolve to keep being who she is, doing what she loves, and helping others along the way has been beyond inspiring. No journey in one’s life is ever black and white, nor completely finished at any given point. She bravely let us into her moments of vulnerability, questioning, and digging deeper inward and outward. The courage of her and her family opening their lives to the potential consequences of this film is a testament to their belief in what is right: All human beings, regardless of gender or where they are from, should be treated equally.

This bravery from Maria is what I channeled when I made the decision to go into the Tribal Areas. I put myself in harm’s way – by being a woman, an American, and carrying a camera without security or permission. But if Maria can live most of her life under threat of being killed for who she is, then I can certainly do it as a filmmaker, and be who I am. As a filmmaker, I encountered unexpected advantages to being a woman filming in these areas. It was not customary for women to speak at the military checkpoints or to strangers who would question who I was or why I was there. Maria’s father handled these inquiries. Thus, I did not have to reveal my language or accent and was able to access areas unavailable to many foreigners. At times when it became suddenly unsafe to have my camera exposed, my dupatta (the long veil that is common for women to wear in the Tribal Areas and indispensable to my cloaked identity) easily hid my camera and audio recorder as it sat on my lap. In certain situations it was advantageous to have the women cinematographers with me, as they would only be appropriate to film other women in their homes. At other times, the male cinematographer would be the only acceptable person in a formal situation with men present. In these moments when I could not openly communicate as my face was completely covered except my eyes, I would direct through eye contact alone and signal to him where the camera should be pointed. And with the slightest movement of my head I was able to convey a wide shot, close up, or if the angle should change. Like all documentaries, you adapt to the circumstances. Maria’s family has adapted to their life now, which is full of threats and impending danger at every turn. But they do not let this hinder their precious moments together – many times, gallows humor would find its way into a long night’s drive at the exact moment we all needed a little laughter to lift our spirits. In these times of Islamic extremist groups terrorizing our world, Maria’s family shows that their belief in Islam, “the real Islam” as they refer to it, only steers them to do good in the world. I met some of the most compassionate and giving people in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

I hope this film gives a human face to the everyday people who live in constant fear of these extremist groups, drone strikes, and in severely impoverished circumstances with little opportunity out of it. These people opened their homes and hearts to us in support of this film. Many of these people, especially Maria’s family and the filmmaking team, put their lives on the line for this story. I believe it is one worth sharing.

Film details
Year(s) screened
  • 2017
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