Sesame Street’s New Muppet Promotes Girls’ Rights in Afghanistan

She follows female Muppets like Chamki in India and Kami in South Africa.

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A six-year-old female Muppet named ‘Zari’ has made her debut appearance on the Afghan version of Sesame Street, called ‘Baghch-e-Simsin’, which means ‘Sesame Garden’.

Producers are hoping Zari will help inspire young girls in a country where women were completely excluded from schooling, until recently.

‘Zari’ means ‘shimmering’ in Dari and Pashtu, Afghanistan’s two official languages.

Who Is Zari?

She is a “universal character,” according to the team in Kabul that helped create Zari as the first Afghan character on the long-running children’s show, already the most popular in Afghanistan where children have taken Grover and the Cookie Monster into their hearts.

She joins Sesame Street’s multicultural line-up, which includes Muppets in Bangladesh, Egypt and India who each do separate segments on their own national programs.

Zari will have two segments in each show, one on her own and another in which she interviews people from a wide range of backgrounds aiming to educate her young audience about such things as the importance of study, exercise and health.

Zari is a female because in Afghanistan we thought it was really important to emphasise the fact that a little girl could do as much as everybody else.
Clemence Quint, program manager for Lapis Communications, the Afghan partner of the Sesame Street Workshop

Each Sesame Street season has at least one theme, decided by the New York producers. This season’s themes are cultural identity and girl’s empowerment.

So that is why a girl was a key factor in promoting girl’s empowerment and girl’s education in Afghanistan.
Clemence Quint
She follows female Muppets like Chamki in India and Kami in South Africa.
Zari will have two segments on the show. (Photo: AP)

End to Misogyny

Purple-skinned and orange-nosed Zari will wear a headscarf with her school uniform, which unlike that for girls across Afghanistan will not be black – Sesame Street characters do not wear black – but pale blue. Otherwise the eternal pre-teen will be mostly bare-headed.

While many of the show’s characters are non-gender specific, the Kabul producers said they felt it was important to make the Afghan character a girl to help overcome the endemic misogyny that is often excused as part of the country’s cultural and religious heritage.
She follows female Muppets like Chamki in India and Kami in South Africa.
Zari sports purple skin and an orange nose to help her in not being identified to one particular ethnicity. (Photo: AP)

Reducing Cultural Resistance

The two production houses worked together with Afghanistan’s Education Ministry to develop a Muppet that fit into every Afghan’s vision of their nation, while still conforming to the values that have made Sesame Street one of the world’s most successful children’s television programs.

Her skin and hair were also designed to ensure that Zari cannot be identified with any specific ethnicity, but rather with all of them, Quint said. “Every Afghan can relate to Zari,” she said.

The lady who plays Zari, Mansoora Shirzad says:

I hope she will have a positive impact on our kids, will make the program interesting, and will bring some new colour to it, enabling us to convey the messages that our children need to know.
She follows female Muppets like Chamki in India and Kami in South Africa.
Mansoora Shirzad is responsible for bringing life to Zari. (Photo: AP)

History: Taliban and Women

Afghanistan has been at war for almost 40 years, since the 1979 Soviet invasion and the subsequent mujahedeen war that lasted a decade. That was followed by a devastating civil war, in which warlords drew lines based on their ethnicity and killed tens of thousands of people in Kabul alone.

The Taliban took over in 1996, and their five-year rule was one of brutal extremism in which they banned women from work and girls from going to school, confining them to their homes.

The radical Taliban regime was forced from power by the 2001 US invasion that ushered in a democratic experiment and billions of dollars in international aid to rebuild the country.

Part of that project was the creation of a vibrant Afghan media sector, as well as repairing the education system and getting girls back to school alongside boys.

The number of children in school grew from 900,000 in 2001 to 8.3 million in 2011.
Data according to figures from the UN assistance mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA).

UNAMA says girls account for 39 percent of the total – up from near zero under the Taliban.

However, Afghanistan is still an impoverished country.

Only 60 percent of Afghan children are in primary or lower secondary schooling.
January report by UNICEF on children living in conflict zones.

While television is largely restricted to urban areas, Sesame Garden is also broadcast on radio, stretching its reach to most of the country.

(With inputs from AP.)

Also Read: In Photos: Meet the Resilient, Young ‘Skate Girls of Kabul’

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