sesame street’s newest character is taking on racism and misogyny
Unfortunately many right-wing conservatives are just using it as an excuse to spread Islamophobia online.
Since it started in 2004, Baghch-e-Simsim—the Afghanistan version of Sesame Street—has ventured to educate and engage with kids across the Arab-speaking world. Last week the show, known as Sesame Garden in English, introduced its first original character. The big news: she's a six-year-old girl.
Zari -- her name means "shimmering" in Afghanistan's two official languages, Dari and Pashtu -- is described as "curious and lively" with an interest in health and exercise. Beyond being a healthy role model, she's also an attempt by the show to address the complex lives of women and girls across Afghanistan. Producers explained that they hope her presence will help girls navigate the misogyny which is often embroiled in the country's cultural and religious heritage. Clemence Quint, the program manager for production company Lapis Communications, who worked with Sesame Street Workshop on the Afghan version, told ABC, "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."
Her appearance and dress were carefully considered and designed to make her as relatable as possible across the country's broad mix of ethnicities and cultures. She has purple skin, multi-colored hair and her outfit includes elements of many Afghanistan ethnic groups. Clemence explained the aim was for every Afghan to be able to relate to Zari.
When she's in her school uniform Zari will wear a headscarf, but will usually be bare-headed in casual clothes. In Afghanistan most girls school uniforms are black, but she'll wear light blue as Sesame Street characters traditionally avoid dark colors. Her introduction was perfectly timed, as this season the global theme chosen by the show's New York producers were cultural identity and girl's empowerment. Clemence added, "So that is why a girl was a key factor in promoting girl's empowerment and girl's education in Afghanistan."
As mentioned, beyond gender and equality, her pet topic is healthy living. Each episode she'll have two segments where she interviews people from different parts of the community, and talks about the importance of staying fit and eating well.
While the inclusion of a culturally diverse characters promoting the importance of being inclusive and looking after yourself and others is undoubtedly cool news, there has been some backlash. Twitter erupted with criticism as soon as Zari was announced; right wing and conservative commentators argued that feminism and Islam couldn't sit alongside each other and made too many gross terrorist jokes to mention.
But international versions of the show have been using local characters to tackle complex issues for years. The best known is Kami, an HIV-positive monster on the South African spin-off Takalani Sesame. She teaches kids about the condition and was introduced to help reduce the stigma around those impacted by HIV. Similarly, the Nigerian version of Sesame Street has Zobi, who teaches kids about malaria.
No doubt Zari will be accepted as warmly as Kami and Zobi and become an important part of a lot of children's childhoods. We know we're already fans.
Text Wendy Syfret
Image via Twitter