First ladies gather to support Palestinians

ISTANBUL - In an appeal for immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and funds to support the people there, Emine Erdoğan, the wife of the Turkish prime minister, invited the wives of eight leaders in the region to join female politicians and artists from the Muslim world and business leaders and diplomats in Istanbul on Saturday.

Attendees swelled beyond the capacity of the Four Season’s ballroom on the Bosphorus, with invited guests outnumbered by their bodyguards and handlers, Turkish plain-clothes police and hundreds of media representatives from Turkey and the Middle East.

The call for humanitarian aid and international intervention was attended by Syrian first lady Asma Assad; Queen Rania of Jordan; Lebanese first lady Wafaa Suleiman; the wife of the emir of Qatar, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al Missned; Azerbaijani first lady Mihriban Aliyeva; and the daughter of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, Dr. Aisha al-Qaddafi.

"The people of Gaza are being hit and killed inhumanely in front of the world’s cameras," Erdoğan told the guests. Calling the Israeli attacks "ruthless and calculating," she spoke at length about the high number of children killed in the Israeli attacks, many of them on playgrounds and in schools.

Relevant to the debate over the ban of headscarves in public and political spheres in Turkey, the symbolism of the first lady’s appearance was not lost on the media, dozens of whom shouted in an effort to get an unhindered shot of the first ladies’ group photo. The contrasting appearance of Erdoğan and her counterparts in the Muslim world was apparent: She was the most conservatively dressed among the first ladies and the only one to cover her head completely.

Karen Koning, commissioner of the UN Relief Agency for Palestinians, spoke live to attendees via video from Gaza. She said Saturday morning during the three-hour lull that Israel had promised troops fired on a UN convoy. "This is an example of what is happening that breaks every international law," Koning said. The hospitals are overwhelmed and ambulances cannot run because there is no fuel, she said. The relief agency is asking the world for $34 million in a "flash appeal" for the people in Gaza.

Actors and singers famous throughout the Arab world and abroad were also invited by Erdoğan, from popular young Islamic singer Sami Yusuf to Spanish actor Antonio Banderas, who told the crowd via video that this type of violence "marks the boundaries of humans and beasts."

Following Erdoğan’s speech, Assad addressed the first ladies and guests in an exhibit of videos and photographs from the recent attacks in Gaza. Encircled by dozens of television cameras, they stood for a few moments among poster-size photos of injured and dead children covered in blood or white powder from explosions.

Support messages came from invitees such as Carla Bruni Sarkozy. In the corridor following the presentation, Erdoğan told the wife of the French ambassador to Turkey that she was pleased with the past week’s cooperation between France and Turkey supporting Gaza.

Nusid Walhid, the wife of the consul general of Pakistan in Istanbul, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review this type of meeting among leaders’ wives and female politicians would not have much of an impact on the crisis in Gaza. "If this would have been a meeting of foreign ministries in the region, it would be more effective."

Norway’s Ambassador to Turkey Cecilie Landsverk said the value of Saturday’s demonstration should not be undermined. "Today’s meeting shows that first ladies in the region and important leaders in Turkey’s business community and diplomatic corps are unified," she told the Daily News.
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