While they do not represent the majority of the world, Western media and pop culture are pervasive. Domestic programming in non-Western countries can serve as a counterweight to this problem, but Western TV shows, often, remain dominant.
But last week in Afghanistan a glimmer of hope for the future of non-Western television characters materialized with the introduction of Zari, a character on Baghch-e-Simsim, Afghanistan’s Sesame Street spin-off.
Zari, whose name essentially means “shimmering” in both Dari and Pashto, the country’s major languages, is the first Afghan Muppet to be featured on the show. Her appearance has generated much excitement inside and outside the country, and with good reason—Baghch-e-Simsim is among the most popular shows for children in Afghanistan.
Described as “a sassy, fun six-year-old Afghan puppet girl,” Zari sports a headscarf along with her school uniform; she also for the most part appears bare-headed on the show when not in school uniform. Zari is featured in segments focused on education, empowerment, national identity, and similar topics. Her costumes incorporate designs and fabrics from Afghanistan’s ethnic groups— the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Zari is, however, designed to be “universal” and is not specifically tied to any one of these ethnic groups.
Nevertheless, Zari is not free from Western influence. Baghch-e-Simsim is funded by the U.S. State Department and run by Sesame Workshop, an American nonprofit. This means Zari carries the full weight of Western interests and biases. Many Western governments view Afghan culture as deeply sexist, and Zari’s appearance on Baghch-e-Simsim is every bit a product of this mentality.
ABC News quoted Clemente Quint, who works with Sesame Workshop’s Afghan partner, Lapis Communications, as saying Zari was designed to be “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.”
It is a noble goal, but one that fails to recognize the domestic changes happening inside Afghanistan. While long-criticized for its problems with gender equality, the Afghan government has shown real progress under President Ashraf Ghani. Since being elected in 2014, Ghani has been lauded for his dedication to equal representation, and for providing opportunities for women to be involved in the political processes. “For the first time in history,” Lael Mohib, director of the Enabled Children Initiative, recently noted in Foreign Policy, “Afghan women have a government that has made elevating their status and protecting their rights a national priority.”
Ghani’s greatest asset in this endeavor is his wife, Rula Ghani. As a religious minority (she is Christian), Rula Ghani has challenged stereotypes and risen to become a force in her own right. She played a prominent role in her husband’s campaign, and, since he has taken office, has been actively involved in promoting women’s issues. In a November 2014 article in The Guardian, Mrs. Ghani pushed back against Western stereotypes about Afghanistan. “The media, especially the international media, have presented an image of Afghan women as weak, as women that are really leading horrible lives,” she observed. “But women here in Afghanistan have played a very important role. And maybe it’s time that we should recognize them and celebrate them for that.”
Of course, recent strides by Afghan women do not make Zari an unimportant figure. As a character on a wildly popular show, she has the potential to positively impact both how Afghan women see themselves and how non-Afghans see the country. At a time when President Ghani and his wife are pushing a feminist agenda, Zari could also be a welcome boost to their efforts. Together, these two forces could see many more Zaris arriving on Afghan screens soon.