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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

"We can't imagine it any other way" - The Women of Kihnu

By Kirthi Jayakumar

Source: Visit Estonia

Life in Kihnu, an Estonian Island, goes beyond traditional gender roles. Women – who constitute the majority on the islands – handle all aspects of life on the island, including keeping, preserving, and furthering their traditional culture, even through five decades of Soviet occupation. All of seven square miles, Kihnu is the seventh largest one among Estonia’s 2000+ islands. It is known as the Island of Women, and for good reason.

Set in the Baltic Sea off Estonia’s west coast, the island is famously called Europe’s last “matriarchy.” In effect, the island is run entirely by the strength and mobilization of women. Men have been historically absent in the island – either working at sea or abroad, leaving women to handle much of life on the island, from governance to livelihood to handling tourism.

Keepers of Culture

The women of Kihnu work hard to preserve their culture – which is now included among UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage of humanity list – by maintaining their inherited, ancestral traditions. They preserve their traditional songs, dances, weaving, and handicrafts, and are the primary agents responsible for conducting rites of passage in the form of weddings and funerals. Kihnu women follow the tradition of Kalevala metre songs, which is an oral tradition of musical storytelling.

Tourism has a significant relationship with foreign policy and foreign affairs. It is a source of income, as well – but is not without adverse impacts, especially when it is to scale. Fully aware of and acknowledging the adverse consequences of mass tourism, the women of Kihnu have prioritized culture tourism, promoting and protecting its history and traditions through events, festivals, and education. The islands are not for everyone, and as keepers of their lands and culture, the women are very clear that they do not want anyone and everyone to visit. They prefer to open their doors to those who are really interested in their culture and lifestyle, and the condition is that they must accept this culture. The outside world is welcomed on their terms: Only as a means of their survival, and not for capitalistic profiteering.

The Kihnu women’s matriarchal traditions have endured despite bearing the brunt of climate change and harsh weather, as well as 50 years of Soviet occupation. However, with the rapid ageing of the population and the migration of younger folk into the mainland and other countries abroad in search of work, the island culture is now endangered. With changes in the fishing industry, men now return home and stay longer, adding to the stress on the continuation of the island and its ways of life.

Drawing lessons on subversion

The concept of feminism is often met with “bewilderment” in the island. In Kihnu, if something needs to be done, one or another woman steps up to do it – there is simply no other way around life there. The women recognize that they are competent, capable, and well equipped to handle various demands of life –they have also internalized the idea that while women have proven they can do everything men can, men cannot do everything women can. In the words of Ms Matas, a woman in Kihnu, “People think we are making some statement with the women being in charge, but that’s our culture. It works. We can’t imagine it any other way.”

That said, there are useful learnings to draw from the women of Kihnu that can inform our examination of feminist foreign policy.

First, Kihnu is fundamentally a matriarchy. However, it must be affirmed that a matriarchy is not the diametric opposite of a patriarchy in that men are replaced by women. Whereas patriarchy fundamentally exercises power over others, a matriarchy is about power from within (Eller, 1991). Adler (2006) explained that in a matriarchal context, power is neither possessive nor controlling, but rather harmonious with nature, without an exploitative aim. This is evident in how the Kihnu prioritize protecting their island without turning it into a site for mass tourism – which would invite everything from profiteering to environmental degradation into the island – even in the face of a dwindling economy and rapidly shrinking workforce.

Second, the women of Kihnu have retained their tradition and culture even in the face of colonialism. Estonia was under Soviet occupation for a solid five decades until its independence in 1991. While some may argue that its remoteness and small size helped protect the island from heavy control in the hands of the Soviet occupiers, it is indeed true that the regime prohibited regional cultural practices. However, the women of Kihnu held their identity and preserved their local cultural heritage. Following its independence, even as Estonia began pursuing modernization, the Kihnu women continued to protect their cultural heritage - setting up institutions to transmit information on their culture and identity to succeeding generations. Music, weaving and knitting, dance, and their language continue to endure. This reflects the vital truth that to exist is to resist, and to resist is to persist.

Third, life on the Kihnu island continues to come under threat from extrinsic forces that include the many changes in the fishing industry and harsh weather conditions. To the Kihnu women, however, the environment is very much a part of their lives. Seal hunting is part of their culture, but following international conventions, seal hunting has been banned to protect the seal population (Plaan, 2012). For survival, the Kihnu women have relied on cultural tourism – rather than mass tourism – where they recognize the adverse impacts of the latter on their ways of life. While some may argue that the commodification of culture is a cause for concern, it must be borne in mind that for the Kihnu women, this is both a way to sustain their lives while also ensuring that their culture and tradition continues. In this, their exercise of agency and affirmation of their control over the narrative stand out.


Adler, Margot (2006) [1979]. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Brown, Rachel. (2018). On this matriarchal European island, ancient customs thrive.

Eller, Cynthia (1991). "Relativizing the patriarchy: the sacred history of the feminist spirituality movement". History of Religions. 30 (3): 279–295

Plaan, J. (2012). Culture in nature: traditional ecological knowledge and environmentalism in Kihnu (Doctoral dissertation, BA dissertation. Estonian Institute of Humanities. Tallinn: Tallinn University).

Richard, Hillary (2019). Welcome to Estonia's Isle of Women

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