Kihnu, the isle of women
The first time that I went to Kihnu island in Estonia was in 2013. I heard that a matriarchal society of 510 inhabitants was living in this tiny land. I needed to see how possible can a matriarchal society exist in my European Union. Why didn't I hear of it before ?
Estonia seems to be a country that is hard to put on the map. It is somewhere up north-east... And tiny compared to the neighbour Russia. We never know where it is from here, in my home country, France. Do they speak russian one often ask? Are they in the E.U? Do they have euros? Even some of my people in France mix it often with the Balkan countries mentioning ex-Yugoslavia... Maybe that was why I had never heard of that supposedly matriarchal society. No one really knows were Estonia is... So who would know of an island of 16 square kilometers in the Batlic sea?
In late April 2013, I heard of small celebration for the re-opening of the island's old lighthouse. I decided that it was a good time to fly and taste what an European matriarchal society may look like. I jumped out from the ferry. It was dark. I saw women, dressed with traditional clothes. Maria Michelson was waiting for me in her stripy red woolen dress. She drove me by the bed and breakfast that her aunt Õie Vesik is running. It really seemed that I was on some kind of women run society! I got my matriarchal island. I got my story! Even Maria told me in her car that there is no need to fasten my seatbelt as there is no police in here. I felt in a place that might have its own special rules. It fitted!
By the next days, while wandering around as I like to do for getting to know the place, I stumbled on a group of people. They where burning leaves, branches, and other detritus revealed after the snow melted as they usually do in Estonia in spring time. They cleaned the island. Men, women, children... They shared a soup, leftover from the lighthouse re-opening party. They invited me. There was a man, Ingvar Saare, 26 years old. He presented himself as the municipality governor, or the vallavanem in Estonian. How comes that a matriarchal society was led by a man?
It was when I understood the point of my story. Kihnu was not a matriarchal society. Nevertheless, women have an important role on the island.
Indeed, traditionally left on the island while the men, fishermen, were out at see, women were the ones who used to manage the life on the island. After the collapse of the USSR, the western fashion blows into this newly open country. In Kihnu some started to fear that this would led to the loss of their own culture. And women, naturally, became to work on the preservation of it. They acted as the tradition keepers, the wardens of the culture. Men more innovative than women in Kihnu did not really felt the need of it. But thanks to women's hard work, Kihnu was proclaimed Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2003 at the UNESCO and officially inscribed in 2008. At the school the Kihnu language is taught as well as handicraft and traditional music. The Kihnu people keep their pride for their authentic and unique culture.To this days women still wear daily - as any other casual cloth - their traditional dress. A dress which bear meanings into its shades of red and blue.
I kept coming back and forth on the island. I realized that this was the key for a better understanding when some people greeted me with a "Oh, you are back here, but then you really are interested in us". My last photos are from Christmas 2017. Embedded into their 3 days celebration...
For the island I have only one fear: the exodus is high, the youngsters are leaving to the continent where the life is economically easier. Those staying are developing an economy based on tourism as fishing bring less and less income. I hope that in the future, it won't disrupt the balance of the island.