By Sarah Harris
In 2011 the Embassy of the United States in Kabul funded the launch of a new TV show ‘Baghch-e-Simsim’ translating to the commonly known children’s TV show ‘Sesame Street.’ The show aimed to increase education amongst children in Afghanistan considering that 45 per cent of the population are in fact under the age of 15. The show recently introduced a new Muppet in hope of empowering young females and promoting females rights in a country that is rapidly developing and slowly moving away from it’s traditional views. The Muppet is named Zari. She sports a traditional Afghan scarf over her multi-coloured hair and school uniform. Producers manifested Zari in hopes of teaching young Afghani females about health, careers and their emotional well being.
The sudden appearance of the character is a big deal for young Afghans as the country is notable for their imposition of ‘backward’ limits on the freedom of women and their rights. Since the fall of the Taliban government 14 years ago, there have been many developments for women, however some conditions are yet to improve. Only a shocking 5.8 per cent of Afghani females over 25 have a sufficient secondary school education, a statistic that in modern day Western society would be bewildering. Around 16 per cent of the current labour force in the country is built of women, which again is shocking in this day and age.
Womens rights in Afghanistan first started to change under the reign of King Amanullah in 1919. The King stressed the importance for young Afghani girls to obtain a good education and encouraged families to start sending their daughters to school. In 1921 he promoted the unveiling of the traditional Afghan dress for women, the Burqa and suggested they adopt a more Western approach to the way they dress. Later that year he also banned forced and child marriages and put heavy restrictions of polygamy which was commonly practiced in the country at the time. However, modern social movements were first introduced under the reign of Queen Soraya who to this day has been the only female to rule over the country. She was highly credited for being one of the most influential and powerful Muslim and female activists.
The Karzai administration has relaxed policies around women’s right. Women are now allowed to openly drive cars and engage in activities which they would have previously been unable to participate in. However, the current government still enforces rules upon women that most people would claim absurd. For example, within most cities in the country women are not allowed to travel without a male companion and are not allowed to mingle with unknown men in public. Humans Rights organisations across the world have expressed concern over the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Sherrie Westin, the executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy for Sesame Street, stated that the arrival of new character, Zari, is a way for children of both genders to identify with a strong, young individual. ‘It’s a way of making sure we are not just teaching but we are modelling which is very powerful,’ said Westin. It’s clear that forces in Afghanistan are aiming to improve general culture for the next generation and I feel that the creation of the new Sesame Street character is a step in the right direction. However the ever present issue of women’s rights is still at large and the Afghani government needs to come up with a way to tackle the problem . Female activists in the country need to be given a stronger platform to voice their opinions and concerns.
Western society has come so incredibly far in terms of both human rights and women’s rights and we are incredibly privileged to have done so. But despite this, those in countries such as Afghanistan are yet to do so and our attention needs to be focused on them.
I feel activists in the West need to stand together as a whole and raise concern on the impending issue of feminism in Afghanistan and surrounding developing countries so that we can really make an impact and allow for these women to exert the freedom they have the right to.