A new puppet is moving to "Sesame Street" in Afghanistan to hang with Elmo and Big Bird – and she’s bringing a healthy dose of girl power with her.
On Thursday night, a character named Zari debuted on "Baghch-e-Simsim," the local coproduction of the beloved children’s education program. Dressed in colorful clothing that reflects local styles and able to speak three languages – Dari, Pashto, and English – Zari is the first Afghan character in "Sesame Street" history.
Along with engaging with the other characters, the adorable six-year-old puppet will also star in segments that focus on educating kids about healthy eating and exercise as well as girls’ empowerment.
“Debuting a confident, inquisitive, and sweet Afghan girl character is a perfect opportunity to engage both boys and girls with lessons supporting girls’ empowerment and diversity appreciation as we aim to help all children in Afghanistan grow smarter, stronger, and kinder,” Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, said in a statement.
As seen in a video (along with some of the puppeteers bringing her to life), Zari is cute and energetic. But she will have her work cut out for her. According to a country-specific report by the United Nations, there is a “consistent pattern of women’s disempowerment” in almost all aspects of Afghan society, and the country is one of the worst places for a woman to be born.
From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban made it illegal for girls to attend school in Afghanistan as part of a wide-spanning series of laws diminishing the role of girls and women in Afghan society. Although the ban has been lifted, only 6 percent of Afghan women over the age of 25 have a formal education, and 87 percent don’t know how to read, according to the U.N. And girls trying to get their education still face persecution there. Last year, hundreds of girls were gassed with poison by fanatics hoping to keep them from learning.
But Zari, whose name means “shimmering,” will be featured in segments where she’ll interview a doctor about health issues and learn what she needs to do to become one.
“The exciting part about Zari is that she is modeling for young girls that it is wonderful to go to school and that it’s OK to dream about having a career,” Westin told Reuters.
The impact Zari could have in changing attitudes could be significant. "Baghch-e-Simsim," which is partially funded by the U.S. State Department, made its debut in Afghanistan in 2011. Since then it has become the most popular children’s television program in the country.
• Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.