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Eliza Jean Reid, author and the First Lady of Iceland during an interview with Gulf News at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai: During a long walk amidst the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago, when her second son expressed his desire to visit Dubai, Eliza Reid had never thought of visiting the UAE.

The accomplished writer and First Lady of Iceland was in awe when she finally arrived in Dubai, along with her son, to attend the Emirates Literature Festival 2024 being held in Dubai from January 31 to February 6.

In a freewheeling interview with Gulf News, Reid spoke about her book on gender equality, her journey from being a Canadian freelance writer to the First Lady of Iceland and how she balances her multiple roles as a mother and a prominent figure with various entities.

With no entourage accompanying her, Reid exhibited a refreshing simplicity not just in her looks, but words too. She spoke candidly asking me if I get nervous thinking if my recording worked or not during an interview and said she would only feel okay when it is done [while she interviews someone]. She even confessed that she had not spent time for getting her hair dressed for the interview as she had to answer some emails.

“That’s how that is,” she said. “I accept that I can’t do everything perfectly, but I can do many things as well as I can.”

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Societal pressure

Broadly speaking, she pointed that there is societal pressure on women to excel in all aspects, from demanding jobs to maintaining a perfect appearance and family. Pointing out that it is unrealistic, Reid said women need to prioritise rather than strive for unattainable perfection.

It was palpable that the same approach was also a reason for her to write a book not just on her story, but on the stories of many women in Iceland. Her book “Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World,” explores the unique stories of diverse Icelandic women, emphasising the country’s progress in closing the gender gap.

“The only message that I tried to get across from my book when it comes to gender equality is the idea that I hope that people think that gender equality is something that benefits all people. It’s something that makes countries more peaceful, happier, etc. And I hope that people may find inspiration from some of the personal stories that we have, and people can approach things in their own way.”

Reid said Iceland’s success stems from moving past “the tipping point about debating whether or not working towards greater equality is important and how we’re going to get there.”

“That’s a choice that everybody or every country can make,” she said.

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Eliza Jean Reid, author and the First Lady of Iceland during an interview with Gulf News at The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature . Photo: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

‘Sprakkar’ around us

The ancient Icelandic word ‘sprakkar’ means outstanding women and Reid pointed out that they are all around us.

She said such role models are crucial for breaking gender barriers. “It’s not just about ticking boxes; diversity brings varied perspectives. Recognising biases is key in forming inclusive teams. Achieving gender equality is an ongoing effort, not a one-time policy. It benefits everyone and requires continuous evaluation and improvement. It’s a human rights issue, not just a women’s issue, and it’s worth the sustained effort.”

Impressed by UAE

Having visited the Zayed University in Dubai on Thursday morning, Reid said she was impressed by the UAE government’s emphasis on women’s education. “Education, in any form, is empowering and opens doors for individuals in various ways.”

Despite the distance and climate differences, UAE and Iceland share common values like close family bonds, and a love for literature and storytelling, she said, hoping that she would be able to return to the UAE with her next book — a murder mystery named the ‘Death of a Diplomat.’

“It’s a British-style murder mystery set in Iceland, featuring the wife of the Canadian ambassador. So we’re connected. Because then you see sort of this outsider’s eye on this country (Iceland),” said Reid, who was born in Canada.

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Eliza Jean Reid, author and the First Lady of Iceland during an interview with Gulf News at The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature . Photo: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Her journey

Raised in a countryside in Canada, Reid first studied at the University of Toronto and then went on to study at Oxford University where she met her future husband — Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, who is now in his second term as the President of Iceland.

Sharing her love story, Reid confessed that she had cheated to win a date with him during a fund-raiser for a rowing team. Having moved to Iceland 20 years ago after marrying him, she embraced the culture and language and worked in different roles. In 2016, the Panama Papers scandal broke, and her husband, being an expert on Iceland’s constitution, became a prominent figure and later got elected as the President.

“Being the First Lady is not a defined role, yet expectations exist. I see it as a privilege but aim to defy stereotypes. My identity isn’t solely tied to my husband’s position; we all have unique strengths and choices in life,” said Reid, who is a mother of four.

Catch Eliza Reid at Emirates Literature Festival

Session 1: It’s A Long Story: Eliza Reid & Floella Benjamin: Feb. 2, 7pm to 8pm

Session 2: Closing the Gender Cap: Feb. 3, 10am to 11am