In a country of sprakkar … | Books

What seems like ages ago I lived in Iceland. This was long before it became a top tourist destination. It was a fascinating and mysterious country, and I always enjoy reading anything written by Icelanders or about Iceland. While researching books on women’s history, I saw that the country’s First Lady, Eliza Reid, recently published “Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World.” In it, she makes the case for gender equality through stories of women who have won unlikely victories. The word sprakkar, which means extraordinary women, isn’t widely known, so when she found it, Reid was thrilled. She knew she wanted to use an Icelandic word in the title, “a word English speakers could say that wouldn’t sound too intimidating.”

Reid grew up near Ottawa, Canada, and met her future Icelandic husband, Gudni Johannesson, during her graduate studies at Oxford University in England. They fell in love, she proposed, and moved to Iceland so he could be closer to his young daughter. Gudni was an expert on Iceland’s constitution, and when, in 2016, the prime minister was accused of hiding millions of dollars in family assets, the country realized it needed an expert like its president. “Our phone started ringing,” Reid writes. An election followed and he won. Reid, now 45, has served as First Lady ever since.

When she first moved to Iceland in 2003, she knew little more than its capital, Reykjavik. In 2010, he was best known internationally for experiencing a dramatic collapse in the banking system and a volcanic eruption that grounded planes across Europe. During these years, she and Gudni had children, she became independent, and then started her own business. She also launched the Icelandic Writers’ Retreat.

The book was written during COVID when the First Lady finally had some time off. During those moments, she wondered how Iceland was the best country in the world for women, a leader in gender equality, offering generous parental leave, abundant childcare and prenatal services. free. It is considered one of the most peaceful and happiest countries in the world, with the highest proportions of women working outside the home, and much of this is due to community and family support, networks, social clubs and associations such as “saumós” (sewing clubs). But she admits that “the best in the world does not mean perfect”. At that time, April 2020, was the 90th birthday of former Icelandic President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first democratically elected female head of state. The anniversary celebrations were quiet, but that didn’t mean Iceland and its achievements couldn’t be celebrated. It seemed like the right time, and Reid thought her immigrant perspective would help.

On one level, this is a deeply personal story. Reid begins the book with her own relationship – with her husband and with the country – and her adjustment to life as an immigrant. She had four children in six years, a feat made possible in part by the generous parental leave granted to her and her husband, and for nearby and affordable childcare. These personal stories allowed him to enter politics.

Because Reid knows his adopted and, in many ways, unique country well, what interests him most is how his interviewees understand their own success. She intersperses her conversations with glimpses of powerful women in Icelandic history, including Olof Loftsdottir (nicknamed “Olaf the Wealthy”), in the 14th century, who “bought and sold property in his own name and conducted navigation missions”, and President Vigdis. , who during his tenure from 1980 to 1996 hosted the 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reid, however, is also interested in ordinary women who understand their situation and do their best. There’s Ragnheidur Eiríksdóttir, who “has been a nurse, a journalist, a sexual health and self-confidence instructor and, above all, a knitting tour operator”. How do knitting and sex connect? Ragnheidur remarks: “They are quite similar in my mind. Either way, I try to make people braver and encourage creativity. Reid openly addresses the more complicated questions of open sex: “Does all casual sex and mate swapping cause moral decay or diminished performance on some quantifiable lifestyle indicator? Not at all.” She acknowledges that there are dangers, including infection and aggression, but she insists that these problems will not be solved by tradition, but rather by increased education.

In one chapter, she interviews a woman who is a boat captain. In another, she talks about Icelandic sagas and legendary women such as Hallgerdur Long-Legs. She also explores how, in such a small country, gender equality is pragmatic. “The isolation of our island and our natural environment, often perilous to this day, require that all human resources be used to their full potential,” she writes.

An important chapter is “Reclaiming the Corporate Purse Strings”, about how women entrepreneurs and inventors can work to claim back what they have invented and be in charge of how it is produced, and who gets the money. ‘money. A sad chapter, near the end, is when Reid goes on a United Nations mission to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and speaks with women in shelters in the camp. One of them lost his brother in a bomb attack, and his last words to her were not to drop out of school. She works in a shelter, an “oasis”, where women feel safer and more empowered than in the rest of the camp. When Reid returned from her trip, she decided to fundraise for more oases, and she succeeded. And some of the most interesting stories are those of those who relied on courage and professional networks to succeed – like the Palestinian founder of a successful start-up, the Jamaican lawyer or the student council president of the University of Iceland from El Salvador.

“Secrets of the Sprakkar” is a slim book (297 pages) but packs a huge punch: part history, part political science. The author’s style is witty, her observations are honest, and the issues she discusses become more important day by day. Above all, it is a charming love letter to a small country that should be a source of inspiration for the rest of the world.

PS Iceland has also produced some outstanding mystery writers. For starters, try Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlendur series and Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series.

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