New Mup­pet char­ac­ter will pro­mote equal­ity

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - By Rahim Faiez

Last year, Afghanistan’s ver­sion of “Se­same Street” in­tro­duced a lit­tle girl char­ac­ter aimed at in­spir­ing girls in the deeply con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim na­tion. Now a new Mup­pet is join­ing the cast: her brother, who will show boys the im­por­tance of re­spect­ing women.

Zeerak, whose name means “Smart” in Afghanistan’s two of­fi­cial lan­guages, is a 4-year-old boy who en­joys study­ing and learn­ing. He joins 6-year-old sis­ter Zari, whose name means “Shim­mer­ing,” on Afghan- is­tan’s ver­sion of the show, “Baghch-e-SimSim,” or “Se­same Gar­den.”

Both Mup­pets wear tra­di­tional Afghan cloth­ing — the baggy trousers and long em­broi­dered shirt known as a shal­war kameez for him and col­or­ful na­tive dresses and a cream-colored hi­jab, or head­scarf, for her. They join the rest of “Se­same Street’s” multi-cul­tural lineup, which in­cludes Mup­pets spe­cially cre­ated for lo­cal ver­sions of the pro­gram in Bangladesh, Egypt and In­dia.

Mas­sood San­jer, the head of TOLO TV, which broad­casts the pro­gram in Afghanistan, said that af­ter the over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive re­sponse to Zari from both par­ents and chil­dren, the goal was to cre­ate a boy char­ac­ter to em­pha- size the im­por­tance of gen­der equal­ity and ed­u­ca­tion in a coun­try where the vast ma­jor­ity of girls don’t go to school and the lit­er­acy rate for women is among the low­est in the world.

“In a male-dom­i­nant coun­try like Afghanistan, I think you have to do some lessons for the males to re­spect the fe­males. So by bring­ing a male char­ac­ter to the show who re­spects a fe­male char­ac­ter, you teach the Afghan men that you have to re­spect your sis­ter the same way as you do your brother,” San­jer said.

In keep­ing with that goal, Zeerak pro­claimed in a re­cent episode of the pro­gram, “I love Zari so much and as much as I love Zari, I love her friends too.”

It’s an im­por­tant mes­sage broad­cast on a medium with a na­tion­wide reach: While tele­vi­sion in Afghanistan is largely re­stricted to ur­ban ar­eas, “Se­same Street” is also broad­cast on ra­dio in both of­fi­cial lan­guages, Pash­tun and Dari, ex­pand­ing its audi- ence to most of the coun­try.

Both Zari and Zeerak were cre­ated in New York and their cos­tumes in­cor­po­rate fab­rics and de­signs from all of Afghanistan’s ma­jor eth­nic groups to pro­mote in­clu­sive­ness in a so­ci­ety racked by decades of con­flict.

Afghanistan has been at war for al­most 40 years, since the 1979 Soviet in­va­sion and the sub­se­quent mu­ja­hedeen war that lasted a decade. That was fol­lowed by a dev­as­tat­ing civil war in which war­lords drew lines based on eth­nic­ity and killed tens of thou­sands of peo­ple in Kabul alone.

The Tal­iban took over in 1996, and their five-year rule was one of bru­tal ex­trem­ism in which they banned women from work and girls from go­ing to school, con­fin­ing them to their homes. The rad­i­cal Tal­iban regime was forced from power by the 2001 U.S. in­va­sion that ush­ered in a demo­cratic ex­per­i­ment and bil­lions of dollars in in­ter­na­tional aid to help re­build the coun­try.

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