I have a crush on a muppet. Yes, my most recent girl-crush is on a fuzzy magenta puppet in vibrant dresses. I am smitten with Sesame Street’s newest family member from Afghanistan: Zari.
I grew up watching Sesame Street. My mom tells me how my schedule as a preschooler was set around watching Ernie & Bert and their antics. Sesame was important to me. My brother and I were devoted viewers. It meant more than just to give my Mom a few minutes to complete one of the 7000 tasks she had as a mom with young children.
Sesame Street was the first time I saw very intelligent women of colour in important roles on television. They knew things like alphabets, and rhymes and how to interact wonderfully and how to teach and correct young children with respect and kindness.
In the days of The Love Boat, Dallas, Three’s Company, Sesame Street was probably also refreshing for my mom. Even wholesome family sitcoms like Family Ties or Growing Pains did not feature prominent roles for People of Colour. There was the Cosby Show but that will forever be ruined for me. Children’s shows, did not often feature diverse casts- Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood, The Elephant Show were some of my favourites. There were The Smurfs– but they were blue fictional creatures.
Maria, Buffy, Susan, Luis and Olivia- these were people I knew as adults and looked up to. Buffy St.Marie breastfed her son on television. Sesame Street was one of the first placed I learned about death. I was almost five when Mr.Hooper died (I bawled my eyes out when I saw this video again). Sesame has always been a show that leads in its work around social justice issues and education.
It has always featured characters with disabilities including Linda, a deaf librarian who used sign-language on the show and last year, Sesame Street introduced its first autistic muppet, Julia.
So it might have come as no surprise that when I saw a Tweet come across my feed announcing the arrival of Zari – the first Afghan muppet – I almost screamed with joy. OK, I did scream with joy. Then I almost cried with happiness when I saw a photo of her carrying a basket of fruit with pomegranates on top. As much as I loved Sesame Street, they certainly never had any pomegranates that I can recall. Pomegranates are my favourite fruit.
Baghch-e Simsim is the Afghan co-production of Sesame Street. It features the main cast of characters including Elmo and Grover but they are not speaking in English.
Zari will not be on North American versions of the program but they routinely have guest appearances and I am fairly certain she will might fly around the world. Her job is to encourage girls’ empowerment. In its press release, Sesame Street explained that Zari’s segments would include speaking about physical education, emotional health and positive community relationships.
When I found out that Zari was an athlete, I thought about how important that message is to Afghan children. There is tremendous work yet constant misunderstanding about female athleticism in Afghanistan. Hopefully, Zari will be able to influence young kids to not only play but to compete and excel.
Baghch-e Simsim and Sesame Street Workshops are partnering to make sure there are suitable and sufficient role models for children. Baghch-e Simsim is available on YouTube so children all over the world can potentially enjoy Zari’s awesomeness. She can help children who live outside of Afghanistan keep in touch their culture and language in a simple way.
The puppeteers playing her and her voice are from Afghanistan. The introductory video from Sesame Street’s Social Impact Department shows Zari in with her beautiful clothing and how her character was created to be as authentic as possible. This is extremely important. Zari is an Afghan girl. She can relate to the children and they can relate to her. Representation matters, her beautiful dresses matter. She is a reflection of the children in Afghanistan.
True to form, western media took no time to discuss her clothing.
Breitbart enthusiastically announced Zari to the world with the headline “Sesame Street’ Unveils Hijab-Clad Muppet: ‘Zari’ Is A Feminist From Afghanistan”
I am not sure if Zari identifies as a feminist. What we do know is that she is six years-old and an extremely precocious girl- muppet. She will wear veil in certain segments and perhaps not in other ones. She will definitely ask questions and perhaps she might ask or field questions about hijab. We shall see.
Buzzfeed reported that Officials from Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street, say “Zari will wear both casual and traditional clothing, and will be veiled where appropriate.” I will leave it up to Baghch-e Simsim producers and cast before I state an opinion on the headscarf habits of a purple puppet.
It comes as no surprise to me that bigots would blast out with ridiculous accusations against my newest puppet-heroine. Tweets objected to her existence and others included assumptions that she would teach children about ISIS or Taliban.
There were predictable remarks about patriarchal faith and stoning and the usual racist tropes. Perhaps they were triggered by Breitbart’s use of the word “feminism”. We already know the “f” word coupled with Islam brings all the gendered Islamophobes to the yard- or in Zari’s case, the playground.
There is a history of aggressive push-back against female Muslim characters in media or art. We’ve already seen it with Kamala Khan (aka Ms.Marvel) who was reviewed by MMW’s Azra.
I am quite confident that Zari will be able to handle the trolls that object to the empowerment of Afghan children and her playdates with them. Sooner rather than later they will move onto their next ‘emergency’ that involves racist and misguided commentary.
In the meantime, I wish Zari the best. I am not sure if she speaks only Dari or Pashtu, both languages spoken in Afghanistan, but until then I shall offer a loving ‘Salaam’ and say, “khushala shum pa li do di”- ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’
Thank you for introducing Zari to us. As a viewer of Tolo Tv I’ve seen commercials about the Afghan version of Sesame Street but I didn’t know about Zari. This was definitely a very pleasant surprise! I completely agree that representation matters and Inshallah she’ll be a good role model for her young viewers!