A statue of Lady Justice in Bangladesh is at the center of debate over the country’s commitment towards secularism in the face of pressures from prominent Islamist groups. Commissioned by the Supreme Court in Dhaka, the stainless-steel figure by Bangladeshi artist Mrinal Haque had stood outside the government building for five months before authorities removed it last Friday, as Bangladesh News 24 reported. The move foreboded increased censorship of public art for religious reasons: the decision was a concession to demands by members of Islamist organizations including Hefazat-e-Islam and Olama League, who argued that artworks representing humans amount to idolatry. Critics believe the figure represents the Greek goddess Themis wearing a sari — an interpretation Haque has denied.
Lady Justice, however, emerged to the public just two days later — but at a spot 300 yards away from the building, where no one can see it from the street, according to the New York Times. Officials reversed their decision following protests led by left-leaning student groups, who were met with police armed with tear gas and water cannons when they demonstrated on Friday. Leaders of Hefazat, motivated by the initial victory, also issued a chilling call for publicly displayed representational statues across the country to also be removed or destroyed.
A post shared by Ifti Sahariar (@isahriar) on
Many, though, view the statue’s return as a weak compromise on the government’s part to appease protestors while still yielding somewhat to the demands of religious hardliners. Bangladesh, as declared in its constitution, is a secular democracy, but incidents like this reveal religious fundamentalists’ increasing influence on its policies.
“I am still disappointed,” Haque told the Times. “People won’t be able to see it. I am also worried because the fundamentalists are still protesting against the sculpture’s relocation.”
The sculpture is only one of many works Haque has created for Dhaka at the behest of the Bangladesh government. Previously, he has contributed mosaics and murals to the city’s international airport in addition to sculptures for civic buildings, museums, and other public spaces, from the commemorative to the amusing. Lady Justice, however, represents the first to garner backlash of this nature.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.