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.
And yet you can indeed have it both ways; the obvious proof of which is that there are women who do -- dress "like one of the wives of a 10th-century Bedouin tribesman," if one must put it like that, and attend liberal academic institutions. I had one or two in tutoring sessions while student teaching in Toronto; I knew fellow graduate students who wore it; and it can be done. And despite the fact that the burqa is often forced on women for all the sexist reasons to which Robshaw alludes, it is sheer and utter nonsense to say "It is worn by women who have renounced (or been compelled to remounce) public life." For if it were, Robshaw would not have had his problem with the burqa in public life; if it were, Robshaw and people like him would not be trying to chase women who wear it out of public life.
There are two issues with regard to this that are often conflated. The one issue is what should be done about the burqa in general and in the long run; the other is what should be done about it with regard to those women who, whatever reasons they may have, wear it now and don't wish to remove it, again, for whatever reasons they may have. Conflating the two does great damage because it leads people to use women's choice as an excuse for shutting down women's choices. I have mentioned before my experience with the fellow student who felt menaced in the elevator over the issue. These sorts of things are common, far too common. Robshaw doesn't tell us why the student in question dropped out; perhaps he doesn't know; perhaps it was for reasons having nothing to do with the course itself. Let us hope it was not because of a chill in the classroom.
The proper response is exactly the opposite of Robshaw's. Are women put in the burqa to break down communication, interpose between the women and the world? Then who needs the gift of philosophy more than they? Behind that burqa is a human mind, very likely a quite intelligent one; it is a mind that, hampered though it may be in discussing, can certainly still discuss; and where there is discussion there is the potential for dialectic, for maieutic, for the pursuit of wisdom, for an education.
In the end all we have in Robshaw's op-ed is Robshaw, Robshaw, Robshaw: it's an article about how he had difficulty communicating with someone in a burqa, about how he was hampered by being unable to read her facial expressions, about how he was put out by her burqa, about how he lacks the ingenuity to restructure the assessment to compensate for the possibility of a classroom of burqas. But there was someone else who was also involved, someone whose point of view the article does not seriously consider at all. Indeed, there is no real recognition in the article that she had a point of view at all. What were her reasons? We don't know. What did she hope to get from a philosophy class? We don't know. She comes wearing a burqa, she vanishes wearing a burqa, and Robshaw sees not the woman but only the burqa. But it's the woman who should catch our attention.