I’ve written about my dear friend and now member of Turkey’s parliament Şafak Pavey before (here is her story) . On Thursday, she received the US State Department 2012 International Women of Courage Award along with nine other women at the US State Department. (There is a video below of Şafak receiving her award; click here for a video of the entire proceedings; Şafak comes in at 51 minutes.) The award was presented by Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton in the presence of other dignitaries, including two Nobel Laureates (Leymah Gbowee of Liberai and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen), members of Congress, ambassadors, and a big, enthusiastic audience.
Şafak kindly allowed me to accompany her throughout her entire visit, so I was able to meet (or at least get close to) Mrs. Obama and Secretary Clinton and to mingle with the Nobel Laureates and the nine other wonderful women who received the award. It was inspiring and uplifting to be surrounded by such courageous people who accomplished so much under incredibly difficult conditions. It was also humbling and certainly put my own relatively minor troubles and accomplishments in perspective.
An observation: I’ve been in Washington before in rooms suffused with testosterone and men’s competitive impetus to succeed; this room of women instead was dense with determination. You could taste it. This is not a roomful of women anyone in the world would want to cross. The competitiveness was absent, but with the same steely resolve.
Click here to read all these remarkable women’s stories. The speeches by Mrs. Obama, Secretary Clinton and the 2011 Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee are well worth listening to. Gbowee, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize, is a Liberian activist and a wonderful, charismatic speaker (at 23 minutes into the video).
We appeared at the State Department and went through security screening, then gathered in a small room with the awardees and with Gbowee and Karman and a lot of alert, well-dressed White House and State Department staffers with clipboards and coils behind their ears. (I was told that when the White House is involved, their staffers and security people trump all others.) There was a table groaning with urns of coffee and tea and platters of fruit and delicious-looking pastries from which I abstained only with difficulty. Who wants to have a piece of chocolate cake stuck in their teeth in the presence of Michelle Obama?!
I sneaked into a group photo between Karman and Şafak, but otherwise am behind the camera.
Suddenly a current of excitement ran through the staffers and a receiving line formed. Before I knew it, there was Mrs. Obama coming across the room. My first overwhelming thought was how gorgeous and elegant she was, like a gazelle. My second thought was how tall she was. Admittedly she wore short heels, but she towered at least a head above everyone else. (When Şafak walked over to Mrs. Obama on stage to receive her award, she told me she looked up at Mrs. Obama and blurted out, “You’re so tall.” Mrs. Obama shrugged and replied, ”I know”.) Michelle Obama wore a very tight creamy white brocade dress with a white flower pin. She looked more beautiful than in any photo I have seen of her.
The same can be said of Hillary Clinton, who had entered the room while I was engrossed in Mrs. Obama. They say that photos put fifteen pounds on a person. The Secretary Clinton I saw before me looked svelte and attractive, more so than in news photos.
She wore a blue skirted jacket over slacks that made her look elegant and feminine, while still being a “suit”. Both women — actually pretty much everyone in the room — were so put together that in comparison I felt like a schlump. I had dressed well enough, but there’s a sleek form of power dressing that I could never emulate. It has to do, as best as I can tell, with exquisite tailoring and with having every detail attended to, down to how your hair looks from every angle (not just what you see in the mirror). Some people, like Şafak, do this effortlessly. But Mrs. Obama and Secretary Clinton had a presence in the room that it would be impossible to emulate — they exuded the confidence of power, a lovely, well-oiled mechanism that guided their posture, their movements and words. Both of them were also personable and kind, spending a few moments with each woman without appearing rushed, posing for photos when asked. Mrs. Obama hugged people. She and Secretary Clinton agreed to pose with Şafak’s sweet and supremely competent assistant Berrak. (Şafak joked with them that this was how she was paying Berrak, so she had to have a photo. I don’t have a copy, so she’s not in any of the photos here.)
After the first meeting in the small room, we went to the big auditorium for the ceremony. Berrak and I sat in the front row and sometimes roamed about taking photos. The Turkish ambassador Namik Tan was also in the front row, looking very proud. I was moved almost to tears by the headiness of the occasion, pride in my friend, and the example set by all these incredible, courageous women. And the speeches were substantive, interesting, and well-articulated, not the usual empty political patter. A staffer told me that this was Secretary Clinton’s favorite event and that she really cared about the importance of this award and the women who received it.
The ceremony was followed by a reception in an oddly ornate, classical room atop the State Department building, which is otherwise a functional, undemonstrative hive of long fluorescent-lit corridors. It was as if a 19th century mansion had been plopped atop the square hulk of an office building. Waiters circulated with finger food and Şafak and the other women were mobbed by admirers.
After that came a flurry of interviews and a TV interview with ABC (I think ABC; it was hard to keep everything straight in the scrum of cables and cameras and talking heads. Does anyone recognize the interviewer? Katie Couric?).
That evening, the ambassador invited Şafak (and her two shadows) to the Turkish Residence for an event in honor of Women’s Day. The Residence is a gorgeous mansion that was built at the turn of the century, no expenses spared, by the man who invented the bottle cap. It was later sold to Turkey, first as their embassy, and later used as the ambassadorial residence.
The following days were a blur of calls from the press (the award received enormous coverage in Turkey and may even have improved people’s opinion about the US since Şafak is very popular with the public). We sent my photos to Turkey, since the officials photos hadn’t arrived yet, and I wrote my very first press release.
And finally, a photo of Şafak in front of the statue symbolizing the Universe that is in a courtyard inside the State Department building. This has been one of the coolest experiences of my life. Thank you, Şafak, and congratulations!