Afghanistan doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to promoting women’s rights. And that’s exactly why, when it came time for Baghch-e-Simsim, the South Asian country’s local version of Sesame Street, to add an local Muppet to the cast, producers decided to go with a little girl. Six-year-old Zari—which means “shimmering” in her country’s two official languages, Dari and Pashtu—made her debut on Thursday, to coincide with the current season’s theme of cultural identity and female empowerment. “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,” explains Clemence Quint, program manager for Sesame Workshop’s Afghan partner Lapis Communications.
Like other international characters who appear on Sesame Street in countries like Mexico, Germany, Bangladesh, and Egypt, Zari will get a few segments of her own each episode, with the intention of relating directly to local viewers. And not just Afghan girls: According to research cited by Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy, positive portrayals of women can influence boys’ opinions as well. “It’s a way of making sure we are not just teaching but we are modeling, which is very powerful,” Westin tells The New York Times. “We know children learn best when they can identify themselves with characters on the screen.”
Zari, with her purple fur and multicolored hair, was purposefully designed not to be specifically identified with any of the country’s multiple ethnicities. The “universal character” wears brightly colored outfits—and the occasional headscarf—intended to appeal to viewers across Afghanistan.