Niqab-wearing woman starts driver training school just for women

For the past five years, Maha Al-Shaibani has been running The Queen of Sheba, a driver-training service for women only in Ottawa.

Maha Al-Shaibani couldn't find job as driving instructor, so she launched her own business

Maha Al-Shaibani, left, launched the women-only Queen of Sheba driver-training service in Ottawa in 2012. Behind the wheel is Zainab Abdullah, one of Al-Shaibani's students. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

After struggling to get hired at driving schools because of her religious garb, Maha Al-Shaibani decided it was time to take the wheel herself.

For more than five years, Al-Shaibani — who is Muslim and wears a niqab, a veil that covers the entire face except for the eyes — has been running The Queen of Sheba, a women-only driver training service in Ottawa.

She launched the business in 2012 after a friend suggested she branch out on her own, following a string of rejections.

"On the phone, they said, 'Yes! We need a female instructor,'" Al-Shaibani told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "When I go to meet them, and [have] the interview, they see my outfit, they see my face cover — they refused [to hire me]."

"[So] I bought the car, I bought the dual brake and I registered with the city."​

Trainees feel more comfortable

Al-Shaibani said it's against her religion for her to sit beside a man she's not related to, hence the school catering to women only.

"When I'm teaching ... I have to help with the steering wheel," Al-Shaibani said. "Sometimes I get closer. I'm not allowed to [put] my hand over a man's hand."

She called her company The Queen of Sheba to make it stand out — and to emphasize it's a female-only service. 

Muslim women often approach her for lessons, in large part because they're more comfortable being trained by someone who speaks Arabic, Al-Shaibani said.

But she also has non-Muslim students who come to her for the comfort of being trained by a female instructor.

Men 'nice' about being refused

"[I teach] every female from everywhere," she said. "Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, non-believers."

Men have asked her to teach them to drive, Al-Shaibani added, but she respectfully declines and directs them to a male instructor she works with.

None of those men, she said, have been upset.

"They're nice. They like respecting [my beliefs]."

Zainab Abdullah, left, gets a driving lesson from The Queen of Sheba's Maha Al-Shaibani. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

Bonding with students

Al-Shaibani uses small tricks to help her students learn to drive, such as thinking of parallel parking in terms of slicing up a pizza.

"She's really professional [when she teaches] driving, but also very funny," said Zainab Abdullah, one of Al-Shaibani's students. "Whenever I eat pizza, I remember this."

Al-Shaibani shares in her students' joy when they pass their driving test, but doesn't take the credit for herself, she said.

"When I see them at the end, [they're] happy, they raise their hands, like, 'I passed!" she said.

"It makes me [feel] like I am the queen."

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning, with files from Jessa Runciman