It’s not every day you see a Muppet live and in person. But there I was at the Social Good Summit in New York City watching a presentation featuring a personal appearance by Zari, a 6-year-old Afghan girl who appears in "Baghch-e Simsim," Afghanistan’s version of "Sesame Street."

Zari’s not really an Afghan girl. For one thing, she’s a puppet made out of purple felt. On this occasion, she also spoke perfect English, although I assume that was for the benefit of the primarily English-speaking audience she was addressing. She was wearing a hijab, the traditional Afghani headdress, and she was excited and curious about the opportunities that await Afghan girls in the 21st century.

She is a new addition to the cast of "Baghch-e Simsim" and is intended to serve as an inspiration to Afghan girls who have been raised in a culture where female achievement has been discouraged.

“Debuting a confident, inquisitive and sweet Afghan girl character is a perfect opportunity to engage both boys and girls with lessons supporting girls’ empowerment and diversity as we aim to help all children in Afghanistan grow smarter, stronger and kinder,” Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy for the Sesame Workshop, said in a news release earlier this year.

Westin was on hand at the Social Good Summit to discuss Zari’s potential impact on inspiring young women in Afghanistan to look forward to a life of promise and possibility. The message is welcome, although it’s at odds with the bleak reality of life for many Afghan girls. As of last year, the literacy rate for women in Afghanistan had risen from a paltry 15 percent in 2010 (according to to a less-paltry 24 percent (according to, and there is a great deal of progress that needs to be made on that front.

Under the Taliban government, women were imprisoned or even tortured if they were caught teaching in the underground network of secret schools designed to subvert the Taliban's oppressive educational opposition. Now that the ban on female education has been lifted, women are enrolling in school in record numbers, according to That's an encouraging development.

At the same time, the increase in education may not translate into increased educational opportunities. At the Social Good Summit, Zari talked about how she might grow up to be a doctor, but the harsh reality is Afghan men have the last word on whether their wives and daughters are allowed to work. Little Zari might be seen as a subversive influence in households where misogynistic worldviews hold sway.

That's assuming, of course, Zari is seen at all. According to, televisions are not widely used in Afghanistan, especially in rural areas. A cynic might look at this effort and ask "Why bother?" Given the number of obstacles blocking the path toward a brighter future for Afghan girls, this seems, at first glance, to be something of a feel-good gesture that, while well-intended, may not accomplish much.

Of course, that's the same attitude that convinced much of the world Afghanistan would never change, and women there would never have a chance to seek an education. There is a long way to go, but look at how far Afghanistan has come. If Zari can help, even to a small degree, her efforts can improve the lives of all Afghan girls.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog,