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Meet Zeerak, a new muppet on Afghanistan's 'Sesame Street' who promotes gender equality

Puppeteer Seema Sultani holds Zeerak, the new muppet on Afghanistan's "Sesame Street" meant to promote education and gender equality. (Wakil Kohsar / AFP/Getty Images)
Puppeteer Seema Sultani holds Zeerak, the new muppet on Afghanistan's "Sesame Street" meant to promote education and gender equality. (Wakil Kohsar / AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan television executives are taking innovative strides to prompt a change of heart about gender equality, particularly among the nation's youngsters.

Say hello to Zeerak, a goofy-grinned, bespectacled marionette donning a traditional shalwar kameez and a waistcoat embroidered with Afghanistan's national colors.  

Zeerak is the most recent addition to the cast of "Baghch-e-Simsim" — Afghanistan's hugely successful, localized version of "Sesame Street" — and only the second Afghan muppet to join the ranks of internationally beloved favorites such as Big Bird and Elmo.

The masterminds behind "Sesame Street" crafted Zeerak's character for a joint purpose: to teach viewers the value of an education, as well as the value of an educated woman. 

The show's official Twitter account introduced the "Sesame Street" newbie with a tweet that read: "Zeerak is a friendly 4-year-old who admires his big sister, Zari!" (Zari made her "Sesame Street" debut last year as the show's first-ever Afghan character.)

The TV show's producers hope that Zeerak's reverence for Zari — a sharp, sweet young girl who is largely characterized by her enthusiasm for learning and career-focused ambition — will instill in young boys the idea that women's place in society extends beyond the home. 

Massood Sanjer, who heads the television network that broadcasts "Baghch-e-Simsim," believes that introducing a boy character who not only respects his school-going older sister, but actually wants to be like her, will "indirectly teach the kids to love their sisters."

That'll be a lofty feat in Afghanistan, where 85% of the female population receives no formal education and the literacy rate among women is one of the lowest in the world. 

But as the only Afghan television program dedicated to children, "Baghch-e-Simsim" wields the potential for enormous influence. And the show intends to use it. 

"People ... who have access to TV are watching and know the brand of the character," Sanjer said in an interview with AFP. "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."

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