It's basically impossible for me as a white, atheist man to imagine being told that my very existence is making my environment unsafe or unwelcoming and that, as a result, some authority now has to restrict how I dress or behave. And our society is such that I never will experience that feeling.
But for women who are Muslim and who choose to wear the niqab, this feeling of alienation and being a victim of out right blatant ignorance can be a daily reality.
I am shocked by the recent decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to put in place a policy that would ban students, staff and visitors who wear the veil. The college has said this is to ensure a "safe and welcoming" environment - but for who?
Although maybe I shouldn't be so shocked. This is not the first time Birmingham Met has found itself in hot water obsessing over what it's staff and students wear.
The college was inspected by Ofsted in 2011 (so is interestingly due another one soon) and its record on equality and diversity was found to be "good".
The report also said,
"Governors, leaders and managers promote the safety of learners outstandingly well. They promote equality and diversity strongly and achieve high levels of educational and social inclusion, but they do not analyse all aspects of college life by different groups of learners." (Birmingham Metropolitan College, Ofsted report (2011)).
"the college makes an excellent contribution to community cohesion and promotes a culture of respect and tolerance".
Birmingham Met's management have risked more than their Ofsted grades though. This is a college with a budget of around £60million from the Education Funding Agency and Skills Funding Agency in a highly competitive part of the country where reputation amongst school-leavers, parents, potential adult learners and local employers is everything.
Colleges are places of learning. They are special institutions in our communities because it's where we learn about the society around us. Colleges are special and important over and above the contents of a course handbook but because of the people you meet, the staff and fellow students, and the people around you. If you can't learn about the cultures and customs of people from a different background or religion to you, if you can't question, engage, learn and socialise together in a college environment then where can you?
Students that graduate from colleges like Birmingham Met are so important to our local communities, workplaces and universities. Learning from each other, about people, is just as - if not more - important as what's in your textbook.
If we are to end ignorance, bigotry, intolerance and discrimination in our society then we need to see an end to policies like this one.
A college that isn't safe and inclusive for everyone, one that doesn't celebrate diversity and puts up cultural barriers, loses its right to call itself a college.