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Iceland's first lady on the 'Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland's Extraordinary Women'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We're going to take a moment now to teach you a word in Icelandic. It's an important one to know. Ready? The word is sprakkar.

ELIZA REID: Mmm hmm. It means outstanding women. And what I love about it is that if you can think in English of all of the words we have to describe only women, I can't think of any that are positive.

FADEL: Oh.

REID: And this is a really positive word.

FADEL: Oh, yeah. No, I didn't think about it, and now that I am thinking about it, yeah, I can't think of one (laughter).

REID: I know. So welcome. I am providing sprakkar to the English language from Iceland.

FADEL: That's the voice of Eliza Reid. She's Iceland's first lady. Her husband is the president there, elected in 2016. And you could say Reid herself fits into the definition of sprakkar. She's also a journalist and now an author. Her new book is titled "Secrets Of The Sprakkar: Iceland's Extraordinary Women And How They Are Changing The World." It opens with her unlikely journey that starts in Canada.

You grew up on a small farm - outside of Ottawa, Canada?

REID: Yeah, just outside of Ottawa, Canada. Yeah.

FADEL: Yeah. And you go to graduate school at Oxford University in England. You hit it off with this guy, who's also a foreigner, older, and it just so happens that he'll be the future president of Iceland.

REID: (Laughter) Exactly.

FADEL: I mean, come on. How did this happen? (Laughter).

REID: I know. It's ridiculous. And it was funny because when this first happened, I was always asked, did you ever think when you were growing up on the farm in Canada that you'd become first lady of Iceland? And I was like, yeah, no. No, I never thought that.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: Right. So you write, this book is a love letter to Iceland, and it's also a tribute to the women who shaped you and your adopted country. Could you talk about how you started it?

REID: Well, Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Equality Index for the past 12 years. And we're a small country. We're 350,000 people. So every time we top lists or come up high, we all talk about it 'cause we're really excited. So we're also the world's most peaceful country and one of the world's happiest countries. And so, you know, we always talk about all that here within the country. And for whatever reason, I was going for a walk or something, and I thought, you know, I don't think that many people around the world know what a great country Iceland is for women. So I went about doing that.

I tried to find about - almost 40 women who I spoke to who are from all walks of life and all backgrounds and, you know, talking about their lives in the context of different dimensions of society to really, you know, paint a portrait of what life is like in the society. And then I do have this narrative thread of my own experience of being an immigrant woman here, of becoming first lady and what it's like to serve in a role with these sort of strange, almost gendered expectations as well and how we can all make the most of unexpected opportunities.

FADEL: Speaking of the people you interviewed in the book, as you mentioned, you spoke to over 40 women from all walks of life, so many different fields of work. I was hoping you could tell the story of Unnur Bra Konradsdottir, working mom and member of Parliament, who regularly brought her baby to committee meetings.

REID: That's right. So Unnur Bra - we're all on a first-name basis here in Iceland - she was a member of Parliament, and she had just had a baby. She'd just been returning to work, and actually, she was having to bring her baby to work kind of earlier than she had anticipated. But this being family-friendly Iceland, it was no problem. And as I think any parent out there will know, that, you know, as organized as you are, the exact moment when you really need your baby to be quiet is the exact moment when they wake up.

FADEL: (Laughter).

REID: And so she had to address a point of order in Parliament when - that was a law that she had been putting forth, and she was nursing her baby, breastfeeding her baby there at the time because she wasn't expecting to have to go and stand up.

FADEL: Yeah.

REID: But this moment came up, and she thought, well, I'll just walk up to the pulpit here and make my point of order while I'm nursing the baby. And that's what she did. And she stood up, delivered her speech, went and sat back down, and then she sort of said, you know, all hell broke loose because even in Iceland, people couldn't believe that she had been nursing her baby while she was making a point in Parliament. And she sort of had her 15 minutes of international fame because that made the news everywhere.

FADEL: Yeah, it made the news everywhere. And I think what struck me about reading her interview in your book was just how normal it was to her.

REID: Yeah.

FADEL: She was just like, yeah, I'm going to go feed my baby and give a huge speech on - to the country, you know?

REID: Yeah (laughter).

FADEL: And I - the reason it got such international press is, for women, it was remarkable to see that. And I wonder what type of reaction she might have gotten in another country.

REID: I wonder, too. And I - maybe it depends on the country. But to her, it was a very practical thing that probably any new mother would do in a practical situation, which is - I want to minimize the fuss that my baby is causing other people.

FADEL: Right. Right. Exactly.

REID: Exactly.

FADEL: But you do say that it's not a gender paradise, that there still are issues that need to be addressed. Let's talk about those.

REID: Absolutely. And one of the things I'm really most proud of here is that anybody you speak to in Iceland who talks about the good things will then follow that up with the word but because we're very careful to say that. And I would say, in Iceland, we have relatively high rates of reporting of gender-based violence. And that's part of what we call the Nordic paradox because our friends in the other Nordic countries also see this. And we don't know - does that mean that there are just, straight up, more cases of gender-based violence? Or is it perhaps an idea that there is less taboo about coming forward about these issues or more trust in the police that people can make these accusations or a broader definition of what gender-based violence entails?

But regardless of any of that, these numbers still exist. You know, the women's shelter in Reykjavik was full and has been during the COVID pandemic. And, you know, this is also an ongoing issue that we need to be tackling and need to be dealing with. But hopefully, we're moving forward with that a little bit more. There's a really interesting case coming before the European Court of Human Rights very soon of a group of women here in Iceland who are actually suing the Icelandic state because they feel that their cases for gender-based violence, you know, weren't being taken seriously enough through the existing legal mechanisms that are here in Iceland. So it'll be really interesting to follow what happens in that case.

FADEL: That's fascinating. Yeah. Well, I mean, this conversation has been so interesting. I really appreciate your time. But I have to ask you before I go, I - you know, I picked up your book. I open it the day before I'm supposed to start my job as host of MORNING EDITION at the beginning of this month. And the first line or one of the first lines is, in Iceland, it's considered bad luck to start a new job on a Monday. This is Sunday night.

REID: Yeah (laughter).

FADEL: And I thought, oh, my gosh, what does this mean for my future as a host of MORNING EDITION?

(LAUGHTER)

REID: I think you're - I think we'll give you an exception because you're not in Iceland.

FADEL: OK. OK, good. All right, I will take that. Thank you so much. Eliza Reid is the author of the book "Secrets Of The Sprakkar." This was a joy. Thank you so much.

REID: Thank you so much. It was really fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF PASCAL PINON'S "EKKI VANMETA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.