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Afghanistan’s Sesame Street gets proud brother muppet

Afghan puppeteers Seema Sultani (R) holds new Sesame Street Muppet 'Zeerak' during a recording at a television studio in Kabul.  (WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)

Afghan puppeteers Seema Sultani (R) holds new Sesame Street Muppet ‘Zeerak’ during a recording at a television studio in Kabul.
(WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)

by Anne Chaon/ AFP

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 four-year-old boy dressed in a traditional shalwar kameez and a waistcoast 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-e-Simsim’.

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 programme 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 told AFP.

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.

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