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Explore the Estonian Matrifocal Traditions of Kihnu Island

Explore the Estonian Matrifocal Traditions of Kihnu Island

In anticipation of International Women’s Day on March 8th, Visit Estonia is shining the spotlight on the island of Kihnu, where a matrifocal society thrives amidst the Baltic Sea. For travellers looking for inspiration for a unique island escape this summer, Kihnu provides a welcoming and fascinating destination to explore, where the local women are known for preserving the rich cultural heritage dating back centuries and riding motorbikes in colourful, traditional homespun folk dress.

While often described as a matriarchy, local guide Mare Mätas sheds light on Kihnu’s cultural dynamics, emphasizing the essential roles played by both women and men in sustaining the island’s vibrant heritage. Located in the Baltic Sea off the west coast of Estonia, Kihnu Island is a close-knit community of seven hundred inhabitants with a history deeply rooted in maritime traditions. Kihnu has fostered a society where women have long been the custodians of cultural heritage, passing down traditions through generations, which include handicrafts, dances, games, and music, playing pivotal roles in the island’s socio-economic fabric.

Mätas explains, “Kihnu culture is not a matriarchy, but rather matrifocal. Men’s contributions are integral, though distinct from women’s roles.” In this unique setting, married women hold elevated status, and divorce is rare. Traditionally, with men often away at sea fishing or on the mainland for work, Kihnu’s women assumed multifaceted responsibilities, from managing households and farms to preserving cultural practices. They are the pillars of the community, adept at balancing time-honoured traditions with contemporary demands. As Mare aptly states, “Women keep the gears running on Kihnu Island, literally and figuratively.”

This International Women’s Day, consider a visit to Kihnu Island where the resilience and ingenuity of women, epitomizes empowerment and cultural guardianship. Visitors will be captivated by the vibrant cultural events, folk music performances, local artisan scene, welcoming home-cafes, truck tours of the islands’ four villages and the timeless spectacle of women donning brightly coloured, striped skirts - each hue signifying a unique status within the community. These skirts, along with other cultural artifacts, have earned Kihnu coveted recognition on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2008.

Despite its ancient roots, Kihnu’s culture is not stagnant. Whilst the island’s women, including Mare, continue to wear traditional attire as part of daily life, this is seamlessly integrated with modern tools like her Apple Watch, illustrating the island’s harmonious blend of tradition and progress. As Kihnu looks to the future, the preservation of its unique cultural heritage relies on sustainable tourism practices and the engagement of future generations. By supporting local initiatives and experiencing life on the island firsthand, visitors can play a vital role in safeguarding Kihnu’s legacy for generations to come.


To visit Kihnu Island:  Wizz Air fly from London Luton to Tallinn Airport from £33 each way. Take the bus from Tallinn to Pärnu (1h 50min) £17pp return, a local bus from Pärnu to Munalaid harbour (1h) and a scenic 1-hour ferry return from Pärnu to Kihnu Island from £7.

A range of bed and breakfast and homestay accommodations are available, including the Elly Bed & Breakfast in Kihnu ( from £42 per person, per night. To explore Kihnu Island, bicycle hire is recommended, from £13 (24h)

You can find out more about the island of Kihnu in a new film Treasures of Estonia part of the next series of Bettany Hughes’ Treasures of the World due to be broadcast on Channel 4 in Spring 2024.

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