Sesame Street introduces Zeerak, a new friend for children’s TV show
KABUL — Zeerak the bespectacled orange muppet is the latest innovation from Sesame Street in Afghanistan: a children’s TV character who reveres his educated older sister, brought on to screens to show a new generation that a woman’s place is beyond the home.
Producers are betting the new character — a 4-year-old boy dressed in a traditional shalwar kameez and a waistcoat embroidered in Afghan national colors will inspire millions of children — and their parents — to see the value in education.
Zeerak’s big sister Zari, introduced last year with great fanfare as the first Afghan muppet to join internationally cherished characters such as Big Bird and Elmo, has already proved a success on the local version of Sesame Street, known as Baghch-eSimsim.
Massood Sanjer, head of Tolo TV which airs the show, believes introducing a boy, who adores and wants to emulate his school-going, older sibling, will “indirectly teach the kids to love their sisters” in a conservative, gender-segregated nation which traditionally has invested more in its sons.
Baghch-e-Simsim is the only program on Afghan television dedicated to children and has a remarkable reach — a recent survey showed some 80 percent of children and parents with access to television watch the show.
Sanjer believes the show can, from an early age, underline the importance of educated women in Afghan society, but also show boys that a good education benefits everyone.
“People — kids and parents, who have access to TV are watching and know the brand of the character. So it is a very good sign that people love to learn and it is great to use media as an education tool for kids,” he said.
That message still needs to be hammered home in many parts of Afghanistan nearly 16 years after the end of the Taliban’s repressive regime.
A report published last year by the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Center showed that just 66 percent of boys and 37 percent of girls aged 15-24 can read and write, while barely 45.5 percent of Afghans attend primary school, and 27 percent secondary school.
The broadcaster is utilizing everything it can to help change attitudes — the new muppet Zeerak’s name means “smart” in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan’s two official languages. And even his trendy, black-rimmed glasses were chosen for a reason.
Producer Wajiha Saidy explains that wearing spectacles is seen as shameful for Afghan youngsters, so they wanted to address the issue and show it to be normal.
Across its global iterations, Sesame Street has made a point of inclusivity with its cast. Earlier this year the US citizen version debuted a character with autism, while in South Africa the program features a HIV-positive muppet.
Last week it courted controversy in the US after tweeting a group image of some of its stars to reflect a rainbow in support of “LGBT Pride Month”.
Afghan children meet muppet Zari after a recording of Baghch-e-Simsim at a television studio in Kabul. The Afghan version of SesameStreet is hugely popular in the country.