Several years ago, I started work at a prestigious sixth form college on the outskirts of London. I was extremely excited about the job, teaching A-level English to bright, highly motivated students.
These were young adults and treated as such so, for example, there was no school uniform, no phone calls home to chase up missing students and no detentions.
Deliciously different to other schools I’d taught in, I imagined erudite, challenging discussions and debate with a group of clever, strong-minded girls and boys.
So I was utterly flummoxed when I entered the classroom on my first day to be confronted by three girls in the back row, sitting side by side wearing the niqab, the full-face veil which leaves only a tiny slit for the eyes.
Recovering myself, introductions were made. The voices behind the veils told me their names but – because there were no faces to put them to – I promptly forgot them.
In the year that I taught the class, the girls never sat next to anyone else. They never entered into class discussion and I admit that I never asked them their opinions about the books that we read.
Simply, they embarrassed me. Unable to see their faces, they had no individuality. I couldn’t call them by name unless I assumed they would always sit in the same order.
Not being able to see their faces, I couldn’t read their emotions. I had no idea if they smiled when a joke was cracked. I didn’t know if an account of slavery moved them to tears as it did some of the other students, let alone if they understood what I was teaching.
The niqab left them utter strangers to me and their classmates, who simply forgot about them. The veil that those young women wore utterly isolated them.
They sat in the classroom with us, but they weren’t part of the group. They were effectively invisible.
As their teacher, I know I should have made more effort to include them, but it was much easier not to do so. After all, there were 15 teenagers in that room, all expressing their opinions with happy confidence.
No one was unpleasant to the three shadows at the back. They just effectively ceased to exist.
The lack of any real communication with me or their peers was reflected in the trio’s exam results. They passed, but only just.
While most of the group waltzed off to university with ‘A’ grades, these young women gained just ‘D’ and ‘E’ passes. And that, I think, is the point of the niqab. It is designed to take away women’s individuality, their confidence and their hope.
So it was with delight that I read this week that schools will be able to ban pupils from wearing the full-face veils.
Teachers must – naturally – make efforts to accommodate religious clothing in the classroom, but the new rules stress the importance of teachers and pupils being able to make eye contact.
It comes only weeks after Schoolgirl X – so called to protect her anonymity – lost her fight to be allowed to attend lessons wearing the veil.
She was 12 years old. At this tender age, she apparently decided that she wanted to go to school shrouded from head to toe in black, with only a tiny slit in her headdress, out of which she could peer demurely at the world.
Judge Stephen Silber, in dismissing her claim that the ban on the full-face veil was an infringement of her human rights, accepted the school’s argument that the veil was at odds with its ethos of equality.
He also upheld the school’s argument that other Muslim girls at the school might feel pressured into wearing the niqab if she had been successful.
It is this realisation that the niqab is not just a black robe adopted by some female followers of Islam, but, I believe, a symbolic rejection of equality and tolerance, that makes this judgment so important.
In Afghanistan, Schoolgirl X wouldn’t have had the luxury of taking any little complaint she might have to court.
She’d have been at home, uneducated and silenced. The Taliban shut girls’ schools and decreed that no female should venture outdoors unless accompanied by a male relative.
Girls who didn’t do as they were told paid a terrible price. Any woman seen without the niqab was executed.
It seems ironic, then, that this child is complaining that her human rights have been infringed by the school that sent her home to be educated by a private tutor because she wouldn’t wear its uniform.
As someone who has taught hundreds of 12-year-old girls in my career, I would say that children – all children – want to be like each other.
No 12-year-old born and brought up in England, as this girl has been, would willingly go off to school looking like her grandmother.
And from a teacher’s perspective, I can’t think of anything more ridiculous than being confronted by a group of children wearing veils.
Frankly, teaching is hard enough these days without the added disadvantage of wondering who precisely it is that you are teaching.
The effects on discipline in the classroom would be disastrous if half the children hid behind the veil, while the other half insisted upon their human right to wear Rasta hats or Druid costumes.
Anne, a teacher in Hull with 30 years’ experience, has found that even the hijab, a scarf worn to cover the hair, makes identification of girls difficult.
“From the back, you can’t tell who a student is. They can be up to no good and when they run off you’ve no idea who they are,” she says.
“I don’t believe there’s any need for girls to wear the hijab at school. It’s problematic from a health and safety perspective as well, when they’re working with machinery or science equipment, for example.”
The school uniform exists for a good reason. It stops children bullying one another for wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes and it instils discipline.
If children turn up at school dressed however they wish, they soon start to behave exactly as they wish as well.
Letting Schoolgirl X wear the niqab at school would set a dangerous precedent.
If, as I am convinced is the case, she was being used by adults to push at the boundaries of what is acceptable in the British education system, then how long before other Muslim girls who have no wish to wear the niqab find themselves being pressured by fathers, brothers and uncles into doing so?
Most Muslim women in this country don’t wear the veil at all. Some choose to wear the hijab, which the Muslim Council of Britain says is ‘quite sufficient’ to meet Islamic requirements.
Lord Ahmed, Labour’s leading Muslim peer, recently said that the niqab is now a mark of “separation, segregation and defiance against mainstream British culture”.
The issue of the veil and Muslim girls has been sorted out once and for all in France.
Unhampered by any concerns about possibly offending this or that group, the French government passed a law banning the wearing of any religious insignia at all.
And that was an end to it. No veils, niqabs, hijabs, turbans, crucifixes or dog collars. French youngsters go to school simply looking like children.
Perhaps it’s time we passed a similar law in this country rather than simply letting individual schools decide the dress code.
Otherwise, religious fundamentalists will be back, pushing ever harder against the barriers of tolerance, common sense and equality that we have fought so hard to preserve in this country.