Producers are betting the 4-year-old boy dressed in a traditional shalwar kameez and a waistcoat embroidered in Afghan national colours will inspire children and their parents to see value in education.
Afghanistan's Sesame Street introduces proud brother muppet character
Zeerak, a bespectacled orange muppet, is the latest innovation from Sesame Street producers in Afghanistan.
A children's TV character who reveres his educated older sister, Zeerak has been brought to life on screen to show a new generation that a woman's place is beyond the home.
Producers of the long-running children’s show are betting the new character — a 4-year-old boy dressed in a traditional shalwar kameez and a waistcoat embroidered in Afghan national colours - will inspire millions of children, and their parents, to see the value in education.
Zeerak's big sister Zari, introduced last year with great fanfare as the first Afghan muppet to join internationally cherished characters such as Big Bird and Elmo, has already proved a success on the local version of Sesame Street, better known as Baghch-e-Simsim.
Massood Sanjer, the head of Tolo TV, believes introducing a boy who adores and wants to emulate his school-going, older sibling, will "indirectly teach the kids to love their sisters" in a conservative, gender-segregated nation which has traditionally invested more time in its sons.
Baghch-e-Simsim is the only programme on Afghan television dedicated to children and it has a remarkable reach — a recent survey showed some 80 per cent of children and parents with access to television watch the show.
Sanjer believes the show can, from an early age, underline the importance of educated women in Afghan society, but also show boys that a good education benefits everyone.
"People — kids and parents, who have access to TV are watching and know the brand of the character. 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," he said.
That message still needs to be hammered home in many parts of Afghanistan nearly 16 years after the end of the Taliban's repressive regime.
A report published last year by the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Center showed that just 66 per cent of boys and 37 per cent of girls aged 15-24 can read and write, while barely 45.5 per cent of Afghans attend primary school, and 27 per cent secondary school.
The broadcaster is utilising everything it can to help change attitudes — the new muppet Zeerak's name means 'smart' in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan's two official languages. And even his trendy, black-rimmed glasses were chosen for a reason.
Producer Wajiha Saidy explains that wearing spectacles is seen as shameful for Afghan youngsters, so they wanted to address the issue and show it to be normal.
Across its global iterations, Sesame Street has made a point of inclusivity with its cast. Earlier this year the US version debuted a character with autism, while in South Africa the programme features a HIV-positive muppet.
"Sesame Street is proud to support families of all shapes, sizes, and colours," the show’s official account said.
In Afghanistan, the show's attention to equality extends to its casting, with two talented female puppeteers, Sima and Mansour, lending their voices to Zari and Zeerak.
Zari is by far the favoured character in Afghanistan, according to the study commissioned by Tolo, which surveyed some 1,500 children and their parents.
Just 60 per cent of Afghanistan has access to TV, but Baghch-e-Simsim is also broadcast on radio across 44 FM stations, says Anwar Jamilli, who runs the audio programmes.
The producers also organise small mobile theatres that travel to kindergartens in rural areas, with Jamilli estimating they reached nearly 20,000 children last year.
He says the show's focus on friendship and sharing brings a dose of happiness to children living with the ever-present threat of violence.
"This is very new for Afghan children,” he says.
* Agence France Presse