Brandon Robshaw: The burqa should not be worn in class

Thursday 09 July 2009 00:00 BST

As a teacher, what would you do if a student turned up to class wearing a mask? You'd ask them to remove it. And if they refused? Then you'd refuse to have them in the class. Simple as that.

Yet when a female Muslim student arrived at my philosophy AS class shrouded from heat to toe in a burqa, her eyes peeping through an aperture considerably narrower than the slot in a pillar-box, I did not find the situation at all simple to deal with.

Clearly, this is inappropriate garb for any class. It cuts the wearer off from normal social interaction with the teacher and with fellow-students. Of course, some interaction is still possible. Eyes can be expressive and there's always the tone of voice. But tones of voice are harder to interpret without the accompanying facial expressions: no smiles, no frowns, no raised eyebrows. The burqa doesn't facilitate communication. It wasn't designed to.

In a subject like philosophy, where discussion and argument are vital, wearing a burqa isn't just inappropriate but downright ludicrous – like turning up for a ballet lesson in diving-boots. As a philosophy teacher you need to be sensitive to expressions – the wrinkled brow, the dawning of comprehension, the half-formed objection visible in the face. Bertrand Russell said he knew Wittgenstein was the only student who genuinely understood his lectures at Cambridge, as he was the only one who looked puzzled.

And yet a sentiment of misplaced liberalism, with which I reproach myself, hampered my response. This was a philosophy class; I ought to be open to the challenge of ideas that clashed with my own. Wasn't it the student's right to dress how she pleased? JS Mill's classic liberal Harm Principle states that no one has a right to interfere with anyone else's actions unless they are harming others. The burqa-clad student was disconcerting, perhaps mildly disruptive, but she wasn't harming anybody, at least not in any obvious way.

So I said nothing at the time; but after brooding on it, I took up the issue with the college management. Did we have a rule prohibiting students from concealing their faces? And if not, couldn't we create one?

No. I was told this was a "diversity" issue. We had to be tolerant of other lifestyles; we couldn't turn students away because of their dress. And this was a sensitive issue. It was unspoken, but I interpreted "sensitive" as meaning "of potential offence to Muslims".

This discussion crystallised my opposition to burqas in class.

Many, including most Muslims, would argue that burqas are not religious symbols but products of culture. But that's not the main point. Nor do I make my stand on the undeniable fact that burqa-wearing is sexism in its purest and rankest form (has any burqa apologist actually spelt out the reasons why women not men are required to wear them?) Let people follow whatever religious or cultural practices they like and, in private life, be as sexist as they wish (always subject to the Harm Principle). But you can't have it both ways. Dress up like one of the wives of a10th-century Bedouin tribesman if you choose; but you can't also choose to attend an academic institution based on liberal principles. The costume is designed to be a rejection of such principles. It is worn by women who have renounced (or been compelled to renounce) public life.

In the case of this particular student, not much of a problem developed as she dropped out. But think of the practical problems that would inevitably follow if a large number of students attended classes in what is effectively a disguise. Can you be sure that the figure in the burqa is a bona fide member of the college? How do you know the right person is sitting the exam if you haven't seen her face all year? Imagine what would happen if six, or eight, or 10 students wore burqas...

The French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently spoke out against the burqa, and has mooted a parliamentary commission to try to combat its spread – which, if one wants to continue to live in a liberal society, seems a highly desirable objective. It would be too much of an infringement of personal liberty to ban it altogether. But membership of a college is voluntary. And colleges have rules. And, for both practical and principled reasons, one of those rules should be: whatever your religion or cultural background, you will not be permitted to attend this educational institution if you insist on wearing a mask.

The writer is a lecturer at a London further education college

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