It may be that no man is an island but, on the Baltic Sea island of Kihnu, it appears that women are. Since the 19th century, when men began to disappear from everyday life on the island because of their work fishing and hunting seals, women have taken on all of the tasks needed to keep their families, community and island running. According to the museum director, Maie Aav, the only job a woman has never done is digging a grave.
Kihnu is one of the largest of Estonia’s more than 2,000 islands and, like many of the others, maintains a landscape and culture that have been largely untouched by modern life. The leadership role of women, which developed initially out of necessity, has become part of Kihnu’s heritage and was recognized by UNESCO in its 2008 Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
This list notes practices and expressions that demonstrate the diversity of cultural heritage and raise awareness about its importance. In 2018, UNESCO included such practices as reggae music (Jamaica), the art of dry stone walling (Croatia, among others), avalanche risk management (Switzerland and Austria) and bobbin lace making (Slovenia).
On Kihnu, women more or less fell into their leadership roles out of necessity, but they have taken to them with great skill and satisfaction. Whether it is repairing a tractor or running the island’s lighthouse, the women do whatever is needed to ensure their community thrives. Among the women’s chief concerns is finding a way to nurture their traditional way of life — the dialect, traditional musical instruments, the Kihnu dress – while welcoming in positive aspects of modern life.
As Silvia Soide, a folk dance teacher and photographer who moved from Vancouver to Kihnu a decade ago to honour her Estonian grandmother:
“How do you welcome in the modern world, but keep this ancient culture alive? They’re in this limbo state of trying to find the balance.”
The year-round population of Kihnu is less than 1,000, of whom five or so are men. However, keeping young people on the island is challenging; the mod cons of off-island life appeal, educational opportunities end before high school and there is a shortage of jobs. Guests, not tourists, are welcome and, in fact, small-scale tourism is seen by many of the women as a way to maintain their old way of life while allowing a little bit of the modern world in and creating jobs.
Mare Matas, president of the Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation, says:
“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.”
However, with changes in the fishing industry, the men are around for longer periods of time, some of them even staying home, so the women of Kihnu Island may have fight to preserve their roles.
Building a meaningful society
Many of the Yazidi women from Iraq who managed to escape their Isis captors have formed a female-only commune in north-eastern Syria. Jinwar offers a space where women can live “free of the constraints of the oppressive power structures of patriarchy and capitalism.”
Open for a year, the houses in the community were built by women, who also care for the livestock and farmland. Many activities, such as cooking and eating, are communal. One woman commented:
“We built this place ourselves, brick by brick. Under Isis we were strangled and now we are free. But even before that, women stayed at home. We didn’t go out and work. In Jinwar, I’ve seen that women can stand alone.”
It is impossible not to be inspired by the words on the commune’s website. Describing the endeavour as “a multifarious resistance to hierarchical social structures,” the vision continues:
“Our journey to reclaim authentic communal life is also an endeavor at revivification efforts through experience and intellect. . . . We, as women of these lands, affirm ‘who we are, how we live and how we should live’ by rebuilding our lives in the framework of transformative characteristics of different historical periods. Against the background of a present-day social life that has lost all meaning, we look back to the socially constructed features of earlier eras and examine the wisdom, artistry, beliefs and self-esteem of women who lived in them.”