ISTANBUL // The sacking of a Turkish television host after she was criticised for wearing a low-cut outfit has highlighted divisions in the country’s ruling party and sparked accusations it is trying to impose religiously conservative values.
Gozde Kansu, 33, hostess of the music talent show Veliaht, or Heir to the Throne, at the private ATV channel, lost her job earlier this month, following condemnation from an aide to the prime minister.
The move came just days after the reform allowing female civil servants to wear the headscarf took effect.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman, Huseyin Celik, branded Kansu’s attire as “unacceptable”, adding television presenters should respect the “sensitivities” of their audience.
A day later, Kansu was removed from her job by ATV for poor performance. The channel belongs to Calik Holding, led by Berat Albayrak, a son-in-law of Mr Erdogan.
The case caused an outcry in Turkey, where charges of Islamisation by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government have increased following a recent decision to allow teachers and other civil servants to wear the Islamic veil at work.
Mr Celik has also come under fire from other prominent AKP politicians. EU minister Egemen Bagis said Mr Celik’s statement had created the impression in the West that there was a “repressive mentality” in Turkey. In Turkey, a Muslim country with a western-style democratic system, TV hostesses and female singers regularly wear extravagant dresses.
Fatma Bostan Unsal, a founding member of the AKP and a long-time campaigner to allow Turkish women to wear headscarves in state institutions, told the Taraf newspaper yesterday that Mr Celik had violated the rights of Kansu.
“The violation against a woman with a décolleté is also a violation against me,” Ms Unsal, who wears a headscarf, told the daily.
But government critics say they are concerned that Mr Celik’s remarks were not the reflection of a personal view, but represent the AKP’s approach to non-conservative lifestyles.
Selen Dogan, a leading member of Ucan Supurge, or Flying Broom, a women’s rights group, said there were growing efforts by conservative circles to force their values onto the rest of society.
“They want to take control of women’s bodies at all times,” Ms Dogan said. “Not only women’s décolletés, but their faces will be covered as well” if the trend continued, she added.
Secularist opponents of the Erdogan government regard the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam that should be kept out of state institutions, but the government says the now-scrapped ban was a violation of the rights of women who wear the headscarf.
Mr Celik conceded that concerns in society had been fanned by the row surrounding Kansu.
“It is being said that ‘they first freed the headscarf and then said this about a décolleté,’” he told the Anadolu news agency. But he insisted that the government respected the freedom of women to dress as they liked. Mr Bagis, the EU minister, said the government was working on a law that would make it a crime to put pressure on people because of what they wear.
But AKP critics think the government, in power since 2002, is involved in a campaign to make conservative values the norm, especially with the help of the media.
“Turkish media have become extremely conservative in the last ten years, and censorship has been revived,” Ms Dogan said. “I am concerned that in a few years every word uttered against AKP policies will be counted as a crime.”
Kansu’s décolleté has also become a political issue in Ankara. Sezgin Tanrikulu, a deputy leader of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the biggest opposition bloc in Turkey’s parliament, wants Mr Erdogan, who is the AKP’s leader as well as the prime minister, to clarify whether the criticism against the TV presenter had political motives.
“Where does Huseyin Celik find the right to judge people’s taste in clothes?” Mr Tanrikulu asked in written questions submitted to parliament, which Mr Erdogan is obliged to answer under parliamentary rules.
Mr Tanrikulu suggested that Mr Celik’s statement might have had the purpose to punish Kansu for her support of anti-government protests that shook Turkey in June.
The Veliaht show’s producers and Mr Celik denied any connection between the criticism against Ms Kansu’s dress and her dismissal.
But Kansu said she did not believe that.
She posted a picture on her Facebook site that showed her next to a sign that read “My body, my décolleté, my performance” and told the Hurriyet newspaper that there had not been any complaints about her performance, her dress or her style before the AKP spokesman made his remarks.