Producers are betting the new character, a four-year-old boy dressed in a traditional clothes, will inspire millions of children and their parents to see the value in education.

Afghan puppeteers Seema Sultani holds new "Sesame Street" muppet Zeerak as she performs with colleague Mansoora Shirzad, holding muppet Zari, during a recording at a television studio in Kabul on July 2, 2017
Afghan puppeteers Seema Sultani holds new "Sesame Street" muppet Zeerak as she performs with colleague Mansoora Shirzad, holding muppet Zari, during a recording at a television studio in Kabul on July 2, 2017

Zeerak the bespectacled orange muppet, is the latest innovation from Sesame Street in Afghanistan, a children's TV character.

He reveres his educated older sister, and has been 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 South Asian long tunic, and a waistcoat embroidered in Afghan national colours will inspire millions of children and their parents to see the value in education.

Afghan children meet a Sesame Street muppet called Zari after a recording at a television studio in Kabul on July 2, 2017 (AFP)
Afghan children meet a Sesame Street muppet called Zari after a recording at a television studio in Kabul on July 2, 2017 (AFP)

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.

The Afghan creators of Zeerak, a bespectacled orange muppet on Sesame Street who adores his older sister, are hoping that the latest addition to the show will strike a blow for gender equality and inspire his young audience (AFP)
The Afghan creators of Zeerak, a bespectacled orange muppet on Sesame Street who adores his older sister, are hoping that the latest addition to the show will strike a blow for gender equality and inspire his young audience (AFP)

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.

Driving social change

The broadcaster is utilising 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 normalise it.

Afghan puppeteer Raziya Nazari covers Sesame Street muppets Zari and Zeerak after a recording at a television studio in Kabul on July 2, 2017 (AFP)
Afghan puppeteer Raziya Nazari covers Sesame Street muppets Zari and Zeerak after a recording at a television studio in Kabul on July 2, 2017 (AFP)

Across its global iterations, "Sesame Street" has made a point of inclusivity with its cast. Earlier this year, the American version debuted a character with autism, while in South Africa the programme features an HIV-positive muppet.

In Afghanistan, the show's attention to equality extends to its casting, with two talented female puppeteers, Sima and Mansour, lending their voices to Zari and Zeerak.

Afghan puppeteers Seema Sultani and Mansoora Shirzad hold Sesame Street muppets Zeerak and Zari as they meet children after a recording at a television studio in Kabul on July 2, 2017 (AFP)
Afghan puppeteers Seema Sultani and Mansoora Shirzad hold Sesame Street muppets Zeerak and Zari as they meet children after a recording at a television studio in Kabul on July 2, 2017 (AFP)

Zari is by far the favourite character on the show in Afghanistan, according to the study commissioned by Tolo which surveyed some 1,500 children and their parents.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies