September 17, 2013

Student Profile: Fatema Sayed

Using entertainment to break the barriers of gender inequality

By Valerie Turpin

Fatema Sayed Mir Aga

While Sesame Street has been a titan of children's programming in the United States for over forty years, its revolutionary reach has only recently extended to Afghanistan, a country that is beginning to redefine its traditions. Fatema Sayed Mir Aga, a recent SCA Summer Program student from Afghanistan, recognized the importance of the children's show as a means of demonstrating women’s equality in her country. The show has also been influential in her own personal story.

Through her own journey to independence, a road that has been rife with adversity, Fatema turned to working in television as an outlet to facilitate discussions on equality. She landed a job at Baghch-e-Simsim, Afghanistan's version of Sesame Street. The children’s show, she believes, can be extremely influential in the fight for gender equality, because it demonstrates that many of the roles that are traditionally held by men can be gender neutral. "Having women and girls in regular roles isn't normal in Afghanistan," said Fatema, "but we have that on Sesame Street. We want to show children that they are important, they are not inferior beings. And women, mothers who are watching with their children can see that, too.”

Baghch-e-Simsim debuted in Afghanistan in late 2011 with the belief that children’s education can shape a country’s future, and that the skills and values communicated on the show are crucial to the next generation’s success. With support from the U.S. Department of State, the program promotes literacy, math and life lessons to millions of children throughout Afghanistan. It is also emphasizing the importance of education for girls and trying to raise cultural awareness about this important issue.

These goals mirror Fatema's, as she has worked to overcome significant personal hardships in an effort to move outside of the country’s traditional roles of wife and mother. She tells of a party at her house that she had no input in planning. “I found out it was my engagement party to my cousin," she says with a small laugh. "But I refused to marry him. My father was so mad; no one understood how I could say no." In all, Fatema has refused to be married three times.

For Fatema, this wasn't a lifestyle she was willing to accept. “In Afghanistan, men choose everything [for women], even their clothes,” she says. Despite the pressure, Fatema has rejected a subservient role; her family is now more accepting of her desire to break the mold of the traditional Afghan woman. Asked how she managed to gain this acceptance when so many other young women have failed, she simply says: "You have to be strong to change things."

While at Baghch-e-Simsim, Fatema also began working as a dubbing artist at the popular television station, Tolo TV, one of Afghanistan’s first commercial television stations. Through the station, which broadcasts across Afghanistan and can be seen across the Middle East and in Europe, Fatema was one of two media professionals chosen to participate in SCA’s Summer Program. She is the first woman Tolo TV has ever chosen for the program, a major triumph that brings hope to more women in independent roles.

Fatema also strongly believes that media can be a strong agent for gender equality in Afghanistan, noting television and other entertainment as strong outlets for change. "Entertainment can bring changes," she explains emphatically. "Even game shows. Having women get to play is a big leap, just having them there at all."

Fatema on the set of Baghch-e-Simsim

She believes that Baghch-e-Simsim is making its mark. "If we can change the minds of children now, maybe it will be better when they are older," she says. Through a seemingly uncomplicated children’s program, the groundwork is being laid to demonstrate the importance of gender equality to the new generation. 

When asked if she might pursue a career in American television, Fatema was torn. After spending a summer learning the ins and outs of cinematography, editing, producing and more, it’s difficult to leave USC and the United States behind, she says. "I want to be here. There is a peace here. You go to sleep at night knowing you are safe.”

While tradition is deep-rooted and change is slow, Fatema is confident a better future is on the horizon. "I want to be the voice of Afghan women; I want to show we are not inferior, not lesser beings. Women make our country beautiful."