Afghan mup­pet

Sesame Street in­tro­duces Zeerak, a new friend for chil­dren’s TV show

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

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”.

WAKIL KOHSAR / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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.

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