Column: The modern Muslim 'Muppet'

Video by Wall Street Journal 

A new Muppet has joined the realm of “Sesame Street” sporting violet skin, a mop of multicolored hair and a hijab. Zari, the aforementioned newest cast member, made her debut on “Baghch-e-Simsim,” Afghanistan’s own edition of “Sesame Street” on April 7.

While Zari has only become a regular character on the Afghan version of the show, this is a huge step forward not only for “Sesame Street,” but for all children’s shows. But now it’s time for Sesame Street to take an even bigger step and incorporate Zari into all of their shows, thus making her a catalyst for addressing Islamophobic issues in the United States.

Zari, whose name means “Shimmering,” is making history as the first Afghan puppet to ever be added to the show. But even more than that, she is making history for what she is representing to the viewers.

In a country where only 15 percent of the women have a formal education, Zari is being introduced to empower young girls, and boys alike, and show them that despite their cultural norms, they can become more than what their society limits them to.

According to PBS News Hour, Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s Executive Vice President of Global Impact and Philanthropy, said the aim for the character is to “help all Afghanistan children to grow smarter, stronger and kinder.” Zari’s role on the show will also include her talking with experts from different careers about their responsibilities and how she can reach her goals just as they reached theirs.

This is not the first time “Sesame Street” has broken the typical mold for characters on children’s TV shows, having previously added both an autistic and HIV-positive puppet to the show.  Zari’s entrance has been met with similar controversy that these other additions faced. Both her appearance and her message have sparked outrage among masses of Americans, as reported by Salon.

Many feel that her introduction to the show will be a negative influence on their children because she will introduce them to cultures and traditions that are different from our own. Others are criticizing the irony that comes along with the character, as she is the first feminist Muppet and is coming from a country where feminism tends to be frowned upon.

What these critics fail to realize is that Zari is still going have the same role as any other Muppet. She has to be bubbly, bright and engaging, while promoting an inspiring message that all parents want to instill on their children. However, because of her differences, Zari’s message is being restricted to the few people that can see past her heritage and hijab.

This issue is why we need Zari the most. While her headscarf and traditional Afghan clothes may cause her to appear different, it is these differences that help make her message universal. Her purpose in Afghanistan may be to help young girls feel empowered and stay healthy, but her purpose for the rest of the world could be so much more.

Zari could represent a new era in America’s entertainment industry, where a Muslim character is finally viewed as a role model instead of as an adversary or second-rate citizen. Her incorporation into the American “Sesame Street” would provide children with exposure to different cultures and ideals at an early age, allowing them to grow up with accepting minds, instead of those filled with bigotry and hate.

We should commend Sesame Street for continuing their legacy of opening new doors and remaining revolutionary in their portrayal of the typical city neighborhood. The addition of Zari to the cast of “Baghch-e-Simsim” just serves to further show the steps “Sesame Street” producers are willing to take to ensure that the future generation grows up to be more open minded and successful than all previous generations have been.

We must keep moving and keep pushing for advances in our own industry; tolerating and turning a blind eye to new ideas is not enough. Only when we are able to ask for and accept diversity will there be equality for people and Muppets alike.


Emma Hugaski is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section.