Last year, Afghanistan's version of Sesame Street introduced Zari, a six-year-old muppet character created to empower girls. She interviews Afghan professionals, aspires to be a doctor, attends school, and represents each of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups.
And now she has a four-year-old brother.
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Meaning “smart” in both of Afghanistan’s official languages, Zeerak was introduced to Baghch-e-SimSim, “Sesame Garden”, with the goal of teaching men about respecting women.
“In a male-dominant country like Afghanistan, I think you have to do some lessons for the males to respect the females,” Massood Sanjer, head of the show’s broadcasting company, told AP.
Sanjer says audiences loved Zari and her positive message so much that the company created Zeerak to influence young boys to reject sexism and inequality.
Although television access in Afghanistan is mostly available only in urban communities, the show broadcasts on the radio, in both official languages, across the country, according to AP.
Zari and Zeerak are not Sesame Street’s first muppets to advocate for change.
Raya, the now 8-year-old puppet, has been an advocate for sanitation and hygiene since her first appearance on the show. And her birthday being World Water Day is no coincidence. Raya is part of Sesame Street’s “Cleaner, Happier, Healthier” campaign as well as an ambassador for the show’s WASH UP! Initiative. Raya teaches children in Bangladesh, Nigeria, and India about proper hygiene, handwashing, and health risks of open defecation.
Last year, the popular Sesame Street characters Elmo, Rosita, and Oscar the Grouch appeared on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to talk about the US lead epidemic. From the Flint water crisis to paint, these muppets asked hard-hitting questions about why American politicians are doing little to protect their citizens from the harmful effects of lead.
Ahmad Arubi, producer of Baghch-e-SimSim, says he wants characters like Zari and Zeerak to move beyond Afghanistan's borders. He told AP that in the coming years he hopes other Muslim countries will introduce the siblings to their versions of Sesame Street, translating the scripts into their own languages, and exposing their nation’s children to the positive messages of Zari and Zeerak.