If you are an Afghani man or woman who believes that girls should go to school, and that all females should have equal rights globally, then you will be a fan of the television show called Baghch-e-Simsim. This is Sesame Street, Afghan version and there’s a sassy girl puppet called Zari. Her name means “shimmering” and her message is CLEAR —-any girl can have the same dreams and aspirations as boys!
The Puppet as Teacher
Zari is not likely to change the mind of a militant Taliban, but her main objective is to promote female empowerment. She will ‘speak’ about girls’ rights, national identity and social wellbeing. There is an upcoming episode where she will interview a doctor because Zari wishes to become one herself.
Hard Narrow-Minded Bigots
Yes, Zari has enemies that use the internet and they are not Taliban or Muslim hardliners! Many accuse the show of being a bunch of ‘liberals’ with a television agenda of poisoning children viewers. One comment was asking if a gay puppet was next (but we know that Bert and Ernie have that area covered). And yes, obese people can blame their weight on the Cookie Monster!
She is portrayed as an intelligent 6-year-old Afghan girl with purple skin, an orange nose and multicolored hair. She is cute with an infectious giggle. Her clothes are varied to represent Afghanistan ethnicities and cultures. She wears a headscarf with her school uniform, but unlike other Afghanistan school girls, it will not be black, but pale blue. No Sesame Street characters wear black. Since she is not a teenager, she will mostly be bare-headed.
Sesame Street is popular in Afghanistan where Grover and Cookie Monster are very popular.
This country has been at war for almost 40 years since the 1979 Soviet invasion and the Mujahideen war that lasted a decade. Next, following a devastating civil war, in which warlords drew lines based on their ethnicity. The city of Kabul suffered greatly with tens of thousands killed.
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 United States invasion that ushered in a democratic experiment and billions of dollars in international aid to rebuild the country.
The number of children in school grew from 900,000 in 2001 to 8.3 million in 2011, according to figures from the United Nations assistance mission to Afghanistan. UNAMA says girls account for 39 per cent of the total ─ up from near zero under the Taliban. And Afghan men are beginning to realize the important economic contribution of educated girls to their immediate family and to their potential husbands. (I’d love to say female lesbian partners, but that’s pushing this country!)
However, Afghanistan is still an impoverished country, with only 60% of its children in primary or lower secondary schooling, according to a January report by UNICEF on children living in conflict zones.
In Sesame Garden, and particularly in the character of Zari, the sectors of media and education merge.
Quint said the show has “the highest awareness among children’s television shows in Afghanistan, at 86%, and is cited by primary caregivers as children’s favourite programme by far.”
It targets children aged 3 to 8 years old ─ slightly older than the US target group as access to formal education is limited for many Afghan children for a range of reasons, including the war and religious and cultural prejudices against girls’ schooling.
While television is largely restricted to urban areas, Sesame Garden is also broadcast on radio, stretching its reach to most of the country.
The joy in working with Zari is clear in Mansoora Shirzad’s voice as she brings Zari to life, holding the puppet above her head and wishing viewers a happy World Peace Day and happy International Children’s Day for an upcoming episode.
Describing Zari as “sweet”, Shirzad, 20, said the new character “will have a positive impact on our kids, will make the programme interesting and will bring some new colour to it, enabling us to convey the messages that our children need to know.”
Words from Zari
“I am very happy to be here in Afghanistan,” Shirzad said in her Zari voice. “It is a very good place, I have made a lot of friends, I enjoy myself a lot when I am with my friends in Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Street).