Women on two remote Estonian islands have lived without men for over a century but now face an uncertain future. Here's a look inside their lives.

Anne Helene GjelstadThe remote islands of Kihnu and Manija off the coast of Estonia are inhabited mostly by women.
  • Since the 19th century, women on the Estonian islands of Kihnu and Manija have lived in the relative absence of men. Most of the time, the men are away fishing or working abroad.
  • Norwegian photographer Anne Helene Gjelstad spent over a decade documenting the women, who endured a 50-year Soviet occupation that lasted until the early ’90s and take care of everything from making clothes to driving tractors.
  • These remote, agricultural communities are regarded as Europe’s last matriarchal society. But faced with increased tourism and a decreasing population, their future is uncertain.
  • Gjelstad spoke to Business Insider about her experience gaining the women’s trust as well as the importance of preserving their stories on the brink of change.
  • You can see more of Gjelstad’s photos in her book “Big Heart, Strong Hands,” published in January.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.


Estonia is home to over 2,000 islands, but two — Kihnu and Manija — are distinct in that they are inhabited mostly by women.

Anne Helene GjelstadNeeme Mari, 2008.

Source:Big Heart, Strong Hands; The New York Times


When photographer Anne Helene Gjelstad first visited Kihnu in 2005, little did she know that she would return 12 times over the course of the next 11 years.

F-Focus by Mati Kose / ShutterstockAerial view of Kihnu island. Kihnu and Manija islands are accessible by ferry from the mainland.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


After just a few days on the island, Gjelstad was captivated by the women she met. She observed that they took care of pretty much everything, from raising children to making clothes and ploughing the fields.

Anne Helene GjelstadVahtra Helju and her cow, Mari, in 2008 on Manija.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


Out of the 350 people that live full-time on Kihnu, Gjelstad estimates that only three are men. For most of the year, the men are away from the island either fishing or working on the mainland or abroad.

Anne Helene GjelstadAround 350 people live permanently in Kihnu, and 25 live on Manija, according to Gjelstad.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


To the outside world, Kihnu and Manija islands are best known for their rich textile traditions, songs, and dances that the women have upheld over time.

F-Focus by Mati Kose / ShutterstockWomen wearing traditional folkloric costumes perform a dance and song to celebrate the summer solstice and pay respect old fishing boat set afire on Kihnu in June 2013.


Source:
UNESCO


Together, the small, agricultural islands make up the UNESCO Kihnu Cultural Space.

Anne Helene GjelstadManija island in summer. Villages on Kihnu and Manija are connected mostly by dirt roads and have very little commercial presence.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


Beyond the tourist gaze, the women go about their daily lives quietly. “They are modest and want to live their daily lives without interference from the outside world,” Gjelstad wrote in her book “Big Heart, Strong Hands,” a visual summary of her time on the islands.

Anne Helene GjelstadOia Anni, 2010.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


The women’s lives are ones of resilience. Järsumäe Virve remembers working on collective farms during the 50-year Soviet occupation that ended in the early ’90s. “We had to work all the time. We had no free evenings, no free Sundays, no holidays,” she told Gjelstad.

Anne Helene GjelstadJärsumäe Virve, 2008.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


However, the future of the islands is uncertain. For one, many of the islands’ young residents leave to study don’t come back. Tika Mann’s family is among those that are geographically dispersed. Many of her grandchildren now live abroad.

Anne Helene GjelstadTika Mann, 2013.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


Tourist dollars allow locals to remain on the island, but “unchecked growth may also have negative consequences,” Gjelstad wrote. “Local debate is often about avoiding the island becoming a museum.”

Marina Lesnitskaya / ShutterstockIn 2019, the ferry that runs between Kihnu and mainland Estonia transported a record 78,000 people to the island.

Source:Big Heart, Strong Hands; Eesti Rahvusringhääling


In 2008, a few years after her initial visit, Gjelstad received an invitation to return to Kihnu to photograph a funeral, something few foreigners have witnessed.

Anne Helene GjelstadWomen mourn, sing, and pray for Koksi Leida, deceased, in her home. The women wear blue, the colour of mourning in Kihnu tradition. Koksi Leida, 2008.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


When a Kihnu woman reaches her 60s, she starts designing her own funeral dress, Gjelstad learned. After death, if a woman’s legs are on the thinner side, family and friends will stuff her stockings with hay to make her appear stronger and more hardworking.

Anne Helene GjelstadSt. Nicholas Church, 2009.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


“It was really beautiful and emotional,” Gjelstad said of the experience. Having participated in the ceremony, Gjelstad felt called to learn more about the older women — the islands’ “hushed culture bearers” — and document their stories for future generations.

Anne Helene GjelstadThe Kihnu cemetery, 2012.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


In total, Gjelstad got to know and photograph 35 women, 10 of whom are still alive today. Some women, like Tilli Alma, wanted to dress up in traditional clothing for the photographs, but over time Gjelstad encouraged women to wear more of their everyday clothing.

Anne Helene GjelstadTilli Alma, 2008. Tilli wears a traditional striped skirt. Her choice of colour indicates that she is mourning for her late husband.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


Gjelstad would return to the island for one to two weeks at a time. She brought back prints for the women she photographed, which led more members of the community to open up to her.

Anne Helene GjelstadThe home of Pulli Anni, 2010.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


When Gjelstad first met Sauendi Mann at her farmhouse, they communicated mostly through gestures. To engage in long conversations with the women, Gjelstad worked with an interpreter.

Anne Helene GjelstadSauendi Mann, 2010.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


Lohu Ella is one of the women Gjelstad spent the most time with. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the happiest moment of her life, she told Gjeslstad. Today, Ella has a small pension and leads a comfortable life selling handicrafts to tourists with her daughter.

Anne Helene GjelstadLohu Ella, 2008.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


Järsumäe Virve has written and performed a number of songs about life in the countryside and regularly appears in the news. Locals will often steer visitors looking for Virve in the opposite direction to safeguard her privacy.

Anne Helene GjelstadJärsumäe Virve, 2013.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


Gjelstad’s last portrait of Mann became the book’s cover. “She is still here, even if she now is gone,” Gjelstad wrote.

Anne Helene Gjelstad / Dewi Lewis PublishingSauendi Mann, 2010.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands


“Life is often hard. This is normal here,” Gjelstad said. “Nobody asks questions. You do what you must. This is how you get a big heart and strong hands. When I understood that, my project had its title.”

Anne Helene GjelstadRilka Ann, 2011.


Source:
Big Heart, Strong Hands

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