Afghanistan’s ‘Sesame Garden’ Welcomes Zari, Its First Female Muppet

Afghanistan's first Muppet, Zari from Sesame Garden, and her puppeteer, Mansoora Shirzad.

Afghanistan’s popular children’s TV and radio show, Baghch-e-Simsim, which translates to Sesame Garden, is introducing a new character for its fifth season. The New York Times reported that Zari is intended to be a role model for boys and girls alike, showing them what a curious, intelligent young girl can accomplish. Zari is a Muppet, the first Muppet from Afghanistan.

Baghch-e-Simsim, or Sesame Garden, is produced in Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. The State Department of the USA has helped fund the show. Sesame Workshop, the world’s largest promoter and producer of children’s educational programs, has been working with Sesame Garden since 2011. The show focuses on “lessons about literacy, numeracy, and cultural awareness.”

Zari is a six-year-old girl who wears a hijab (traditional head scarf) for school but goes bareheaded at other times. Her skin is purple, her nose is orange, and her hair is made of multi-colored yarn. Zari will speak to viewers, play with real children, and speak to Afghani women who are doctors and teachers. Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s executive vice-president of global impact and philanthropy, wants Zari to be an example for both girls and boys.

It’s a way of making sure we are not just teaching but we are modeling, which is very powerful. We know children learn best when they can identify themselves with characters on the screen…. 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.

Zari is brought to life by Afghan puppeteer Mansoora Shirzad.

Puppeteer Mansoora Shirzad lifts Muppet Zari in front of a green screen in a studio in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s Sesame Garden isn’t the first time Sesame Workshop has worked with other countries to create international versions of Sesame Street that reflect local culture while teaching counting, letters, courtesy, and tolerance. Egypt’s Alam Simsim (Sesame World) has Khokha, a pink-orange Muppet, who like Zari, is intended to encourage young girls. The Israeli Rechov Sumsum includes Sivan, a Muppet in a wheelchair, and Malkamo, an Ethiopian Muppet, considered one of the few positive media presentations of an Ethiopian in Israel.

Modern Afghanistan is not an easy place for women and girls. Eighty-seven percent of women in Afghanistan have been victims of domestic violence according to the website Section 15.CA. Eighty-five percent of Afghan women are functionally illiterate, having little or no access to education. More than half of girls in Afghanistan are married or at least engaged by the age of 12; nearly two-thirds are married before they reach their seventeenth birthday. Their husbands are often older than they are, often the age of their fathers or even grandfathers. Women cannot work outside the home without the permission of their husbands.

Conditions for women have improved since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but there are huge differences between the legal rights of women in Afghanistan and the actual living conditions.

Trust in Education pointed out on their website that change cannot be forced on Afghanistan by foreigners.

All change—if it is to be permanent–cannot be imposed by Western outsiders on this tribal, Islamic, post-conflict society. It has to emerge through education within the context of the culture. We help girls get the education they so desperately want, as well as help educate the boys.

Sesame Garden adding Zari to its cast is a perfect example of education and social improvement emerging through the context of Afghan culture. Will Zari teach Afghani youngsters that girls can do more than help their mothers with housework? Will she remind parents their daughters are capable of great things?

[Photo by Rahmut Gul/AP Images]