Afghanistan has been a country riddled with conflict for decades and that’s had some devastating effects on the population. When the Taliban took over in 1996, women’s rights in particular were oppressed–they restricted their movement, denied them the right to work, banned girls’ education, and physically abused them–resulting in even more gender inequality than other places in the world. When the Taliban fell in 2001, women were granted equal rights in the country. Unfortunately, the change in government did not necessarily change people’s perceptions or their access to education. That’s where Sesame Street comes in.
Sesame Street is a universal part of popular culture here in North America and many other countries have their own versions of the popular Muppets show. Fun fact: Canada actually had a special Canadian version called Sesame Park which featured a polar bear named Basil and a Francophone otter named Louis. While it’s a fun educational show to sit your kids in front of here, Afghanistan’s version, Baghch-e-Simsim, is actually a crucial part of educating children in the country.
The head of one of the main Afghan networks, Massood Sanjer, says that Sesame Street may be the only access some children, especially girls, have to education.
‘There are still a lot of children that don’t go to school,’ he told CTV, ‘In provinces where there’s no access to school, media can play a very good role in teaching the kids. Bringing Sesame Street to Afghanistan, we are trying to help the kids in the far corners of Afghanistan by reaching them through either TV or radio.’
The most recent addition to the Muppet cast is a pretty big deal in particular. Zeerak is a four-year-old boy feminist whose admiration and respect for his older sister, Zari, is hopefully going to teach young children in Afghanistan a great lesson about respecting women. Zari was introduced last year and often tells the audience and her brother the interesting things she learns at school and how important the experience is. Zeerak shows the utmost respect for his sister and is meant to be a good role model for positive and equal treatment of women in the country.
‘Zeerak is respectful and loving to his sister which could be a very good lesson for Afghan children,’ Sanjer said, ‘Especially in a conservative society like Afghanistan. We can teach the man to respect the woman and give the same rights the men and boys in the family have to the girls.’
These characters are serving the double function of teaching kids in a gender-segregated society that women are equal to men and instilling the importance of education for both boys and girls. According to a poll, 80 percent of families in Afghanistan knew what Sesame Street was or tuned into the show either on TV or the radio. The survey also found that most of the viewers are parents and children watching together, meaning that the parents will also be absorbing these important lessons.
Sesame Street has made some amazing leaps for equality and representation in the past. Most recently, the American version added a Muppet with autism to promote acceptance and understanding as well as give children with autism someone like them to watch on television. As if we needed one more reason to love Sesame Street.