Welcome to One of the World's Last Matriarchal Societies

Wikipedia//CC BY-SA 3.0
Wikipedia//CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia//CC BY-SA 3.0

Travel to Kihnu, a small island off the coast of Estonia, and you’ll immediately notice that the island’s dirt roads, rock-strewn beaches, and tiny villages are bereft of men. Its inhabitants are mostly middle-aged women; they zip across the island astride vintage motorcycles, clad in traditional woven skirts and head scarves.

Kihnu is one of the world’s last remaining matriarchal societies. Its economy is reliant on the island’s fishermen, who leave home for months at a time to sail the Baltic Sea. Their wives are left behind to work in the fields, raise the children, and essentially run the island. They’re also responsible for passing down centuries-old traditions to the island’s younger generations—a challenging task thanks to a faltering economy and a dwindling population.

It’s easy to romanticize Kihnu’s pastoral shores, which attract European tourists during the summer months. However, the small community lacks industry and opportunities for adolescents. According to Visions of Kihnu, a short documentary that was screened at last year’s Estonian Documentary Film Festival & Competition in Toronto, young people often leave Kihnu to seek higher education and never return. Therefore, aspects of the island’s rich cultural heritage—elaborate weddings filled with ancient rituals, and bright, hand-woven traditional dresses, for example—are in danger of dying out.

However, officials have taken steps to ensure that the island’s legacy is preserved. The Kihnu wedding has been named a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. And the recently renovated Kihnu Museum celebrates local history, notable residents, and the customs and conventions that make Kihnu unlike any other island in the Baltic region—or for that matter, the world.

[h/t Al Jazeera]