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Rula Ghani (Bibi Gul), First Lady of Afghanistan (Samantha Appleton/Women in the World)

“Salaam alaikum!”

Sesame Street’s newest star meets the first lady of Afghanistan

April 7, 2016

The newest star of Afghan television is six years old. She is very curious about the world, and asks a lot of questions. When she grows up, she wants to be a doctor. Or maybe a teacher. Or maybe a volleyball player. She can’t decide.  Her hair, thick and brown, is flecked with strands of purple, orange, and blue. She has a rosy tongue, an orange nose, and purple skin.

The newest star of Afghan television is a Muppet named Zari.

Zari is the latest addition to the sunny, fuzzy world of Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden), a co-production of Sesame Street that is filmed in Afghanistan. She will make her first appearance on April 7, during the series’ fifth season. But before her television debut, Zari took an exciting trip to the Women in the World Summit in New York City, where she met Rula Ghani, the first lady of Afghanistan.

Backstage at the event, before Ghani appeared onstage to discuss the challenges facing women in Afghanistan, Zari and the first lady posed for photos and chatted about their hijabs.

“Salaam alaikum!” Zari said. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you.” She touched her cream headscarf, and pointed to the first lady’s white hijab. “We match a little bit.”

Zari then told the first lady that she speaks both Dari and Pashto, the two official languages of Afghanistan. “Good, good,” Ghani replied. “Wonderful.”

The meeting was a fitting kickoff for this plucky little Muppet. Ghani is known for advocating for women’s rights in a country where first ladies are rarely heard from in public. Zari was created, in part, to educate and inspire young girls in Afghanistan.

Baghch-e-Simsim was first introduced to Afghanistan in 2011, a collaboration between Sesame Workshop, the United States Embassy in Kabul, and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education. The goal of the show was the same as that of any other Sesame production — to educate children and help them develop life skills — but Baghch-e-Simsim took particular care to direct its messages at young girls. In Afghanistan, women’s literacy rates are among the lowest in the world, and the education of girls is sometimes violently opposed.

When it first aired, the Baghch-e-Simsim cast was comprised of local actors and Muppets that were co-opted from Sesame productions in the United States, Egypt, Mexico, Russia, and Bangladesh. In September of last year, executives began discussing the possibility of introducing a local Muppet into the narrative — a Muppet that would truly resonate with Baghch-e-Simsim’s young audience. Given the show’s mandate to empower young girls, it seemed only natural that this new character should be female.

“Really important was modeling positive girl role models in Afghanistan,” said Estee Bardanashvili, senior producer for the International Social Impact Division of Sesame Workshop. “Our local team was super excited and enthusiastic about having a girl character, somebody who would be a role model for girls, of course, as well as for boys in Afghanistan.”

And so Sesame Workshop created Zari, whose name means “shimmering” in Pashto and Dari. Every detail of Zari’s personality and design was carefully considered, to ensure that a broad spectrum of Afghan children would be able to relate to the Muppet. Zari’s three different outfits — a school uniform, “casual attire,” and a celebratory dress — are splashed with bright colors that have meaning to different ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Her purple fur and humanoid features are sufficiently generic to make her “universally Afghan and not necessarily from one or the other ethnic group,” as Bardanashvili put it.

But in some ways, Zari’s design is highly specific. Because Afghan girls over the age of five are required to wear a hijab when they are at school, for example, Zari’s school uniform comes equipped with a cream-colored head scarf. Sometimes, it slips down over her ears. Like other girls her age, Zari is still getting used to this new garment, which will become a part of her daily life.

As she interacts with the humans and friendly monsters that populate the world of Baghch-e-Simsim, Zari quietly transmits values of kindness and empowerment. She teaches children to be nice to their friends, to greet them with “asalaam alaikum.” She shows young viewers how to stay fit through stretches and playing sports. Above all, Zari is inquisitive, an endless wellspring of curiosity. She is excited to study at school, to view artifacts at a museum. In multiple segments, she interviews Afghan professionals — a pediatrician, a conductor, a female volleyball player — about their jobs, and what it would take to attain those jobs herself. The message to Baghch-e-Simsim’s young audience, and to girl children especially, is that a life of learning, good health, and professional success is possible.

“To see a girl doing all these things — being an achiever, playing volleyball or cricket, going out to the museum, or going to interview a conductor or a sports professional — those are the images that kids don’t necessarily see in Afghanistan,” said Bardanashvil. “We really hoped that [Zari] would be that instigator of change and a positive role model for the kids. It’s not something that’s going to transform things completely. This is what kids do, and they just need to see somebody doing it to just go about and do it themselves: ask questions, ask their parents to take them to different places, or ask them to teach them certain things.”

Of course, in its mission to improve the futures of young girls, Baghch-e-Simsim’s faces steep obstacles. Forced and child marriages are pervasive in Afghanistan, and research suggests that as many as nine out of 10 Afghan women endure abuse in the home. But a study by the research group D3 Systems found that Baghch-e-Simsim has a pervasive reach among Afghan children and their caregivers — 81 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 7 had watched Baghch-e-Simsim, and 74 percent of caregivers had viewed the show with their children. And so Bardanashvil remains hopeful that the program will quietly shape the thinking of its audience, both young and old.

“The whole idea of all of our characters is to help kids all over the world, and especially in Afghanistan, to grow smarter, stronger, and kinder,” Bardanashvil said. “With everything that Zari will be doing, she will be promoting that for girls and for boys. The idea of her in general is to really present the girls to themselves: ‘Look what we can do.’”


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