Sesame Street Advocating Girls’ Education & Empowerment With New Afghan Character Zari


What better way to inspire the minds of young girls in Afghanistan than to create a character advocating for education and equal rights on the country’s most popular show for children. The Afghan version of Sesame Street, locally called ‘Baghch-e-Simsin‘ is watched by 81% of children aged 3-7.

The show is locally produced with funding from the US State Department, and for it’s fifth season, they added Zari, a 6 year old Muppet who will be a role model for female empowerment for a generation of young girls, and impact the way a generation of young boys view women.

According to a report from Reuters ahead of the fifth season debut of Zari, her name means “shimmering” in the Dari and Pashto languages. According to USAID, Afghanistan has 5 million kids under the age of 5, and one third of them are not in school. Education and vocational opportunities are much better for women and girls today than they were 15 years ago when the Taliban was still in power, but there is still a lot of social and cultural stigma to break through.

According to 2011 data provided by UNICEF, only 2.4 million girls and 4.6 million boys are enrolled in primary or secondary education. UNICEF also claims the literacy rate among women is 13% (compared to 39% for men).

Zari will serve as an important cultural conduit on the show, appearing in segments about health, exercise and well-being while also interviewing various professionals including a doctor, in order to find out how she can become one herself. Sesame Workshop, the non-profit behind the TV show said Zari will appear in a range of different traditional clothing, including head-coverings wherever appropriate.


“Our locally developed Baghch-e-Simsim program is designed to do just that: deliver lessons of literacy, math, and life skills to millions of Afghan children, with a special emphasis on girls’ education and cultural awareness. The need is enormous. Less than two-thirds of Afghan children are enrolled in primary school, a rate that’s even lower for girls,” said Sesame Workshop in a statement.

Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy, says the significance of Zari goes beyond just inspiring kids on a TV show.

The exciting part about Zari is that she is modeling for young girls that it is wonderful to go to school and that it’s ok to dream about having a career. It’s so powerful that the first Afghan Muppet is a girl,” she said.

Sherrie also noted that an addition like Zari to a show like Sesame Street, which has been running in the United States since 1969, has the power to influence and change minds in a non-threatening way. Research has shown that previous seasons of the show have begun to open the minds of Afghan fathers about the value of educating their daughters, she said.

Part of the power of the broadcast and Zari’s potential as a role model is to reach children and parents where they may not have access to other educational content,” she said.


Sesame Workshop partnered with the Afghan education ministry in order to best represent the cultural topics and messages through the show. Yet they also want to challenge certain types of existing norms that have plagued the long-suffering war-torn nation.

According to AFP, with the inclusion of Zari, the show wants to “help overcome the endemic misogyny that is often excused as part of the country’s cultural and religious heritage.”

The dominant themes of season 5 are cultural identity and girls empowerment, which is why a female character was a strategic decision, according to Clemence Quint, program manager for Lapis Communications, the Afghan partner of the Sesame Street Workshop.

“Zari is a female because in Afghanistan we thought it was really important to emphasize the fact that a little girl could do as much as everybody else,” he said.

As for Zari herself, she is voiced by 23 year old Mansoora Shirzad, who described the character as “sweet”. Mansoora will voice Zari in Pashto, and another female puppeteer will voice her in Dari.

“The new character will have a positive impact on our kids, will make the program interesting and will bring some new color to it, enabling us to convey the messages that our children need to know,” she said.


Mansoora is an arts and music major at Kabul University, and beat out 150 other young women for the role of chief puppeteer for Zari. Mansoora’s mother teaches Dari at a public school in Afghanistan, which is why she understands the need for girls to have education.

“It’s so necessary for girls. We are the ones who are teaching the younger generation, for their lives, for their country. If I’m not an educated person how can I do this for my babies and children?. For so many girls it’s like not being alive – they end up working for others but not understanding themselves. It’s like living in a jail. You’re like someone who doesn’t have eyes. It’s so hard to know how to talk and to live in [this] society,” she told PBS in an interview.

While she is aware of the importance of a character like Zari in the lives of many young girls and boys, Mansoora also has to be mindful of the danger she could face as a woman who is working.

“Generally we are in danger in Afghanistan because we are girls. It’s hard to go to work with men all around us. At first I didn’t want to tell people I work with the puppets, and I didn’t want to give the media my photo but I decided I have to be brave. Sometimes when I’m walking in the street somebody points and me and says ‘I saw her on Facebook or online,’” she said.


The ever-present danger exists because by and large, education and economic opportunities are still controlled by men in the country, according to Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown.

“Access to education for girls is still up to the male head of the household, and what they allow the women in their house to do with the education as well. More heads of household are allowing girls to go to school but [that] doesn’t mean they will allow the women to work,” she said.

With female empowerment being a major focus of President Ashraf Ghani, as well as his wife Rula Ghani, a rare first lady in Afghanistan who has been allowed to have a public voice and role which she uses to champion women’s initiatives such as a women’s university, the cultural status quo is undergoing a major change.

Having public role models to encourage the progression and equality of all Afghans is important, and the presence of Zari on ‘Baghch-e-Simsin‘ is part of this momentum. Zari follows female Muppets like Chamki in India and Kami in South Africa who play a key role in “Sesame Street” co-productions around the world where favorite characters like Elmo and Big Bird appear alongside locally-produced content.


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