As a white University Lecturer, I must admit that when Burquared students first started appearing in the lecture theatre, I was alarmed. How, I wondered, could I teach students whose faces were not visible? I train businesses in communication skills, for goodness sake - and one of the key learning points is always to closely monitor the facial expression of your audience as you speak. How much more important was this advice for teachers and lecturers, who need to be sure that what they are trying to impart is understood? Facial expression is a rich medium for feedback and one that most of us have come to rely on in order to maintain our high standards of teaching. Would the Burquared student compromise this?
A couple years on, I can now safely say that you get used to students whose faces are obscured. Yes, it is hard at first, and I have found my own eyes straying anxiously to theirs at regular intervals, to try to ascertain whether their owners had grasped my points. Over time, however, I have became more comfortable with the situation and more confident in the abilities of the students themselves to alert me if anything is amiss. It helps that most of the Burquared students I have taught have been fairly vocal and I have learned to take more notice of their tone of voice and speech mannerisms in place of facial expression.
It also helps that most of these students happen to be hard-working, enthusiastic and conscientious. I am loathe to state that all Burquared students are so, or even that all Muslim women students are like that, for that in itself would be a form of benevolent racism. However, it is certainly the case that many such women are less distracted by elements of student life external to studying like partying, clubbing and drinking - which allows them to focus more on their coursework and lectures. For this reason, I have learned that the Burquared student is often a pleasure to have in a class.
Of course, facial feedback is not the only objection many have to the Burquared student. Security issues are often cited as a concern and indeed, it is impossible to verify a student's identity when their face is obscured. At my University in the North West of England, we tend only to require identity cards at exams and yes, it seems daft to require this when some students can opt out. In fact, some Burquared students even have Burquared ID photos, which is clearly not much help in identification.
But, the reality is that few students actually resemble their ID photos. As exam invigilator, I am required to check the photos against the students and many are simply unrecognisable. Students are usually young adults who tend to experiment with their image; their appearance a year or two in often bears little similarity to the nervous, fresh-from-school face peering from their ID photo.
The answer to the ID problem will come eventually in the form of finger-print identification, as currently used by many schools in the UK for cashless canteen systems. That will happen, so the ID of the Burquared student is but a temporary problem.
So, overall, do I think Burquas have a place on university campuses in this country? Like many educated people, I don't like what they represent. However, if they were banned, would students remove them or remove themselves? I fear that some students would no longer access higher education and that concerns me more. Education is power and if Burquared women in this country are excluded (or exclude themselves) from accessing this, then they risk losing more than we do by having them there.
Banning students from wearing Burquas on the grounds of either security or teaching quality is thus based on spurious arguments (would a blind lecturer be banned for being unable to see any of their students' faces?). Objections to the Burqua on University campuses on the grounds of moral or philosophical concerns about whether it is appropriate to 'condone' their use in modern Britain is a different issue and I see no reason why those debates cannot be publically voiced by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. However, don't hide this healthy debate behind thin arguments about ID and facial feedback; in my experience, these are dubious concerns, possibly based on racist ideology, that are easily overcome.