SuperShe Island: the holiday where men are banned
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If the feminist struggle is a war, then this Finnish island is the boot camp of its elite forces. Think of it as Navy Seals training for feminists — with a bit more in the way of yoga mats and hygge. Peer between the island’s silvergreen pine trees and you can see them: crack troops, working hard at improving body and mind for the fight for equality. Doing plank pose. Going to lectures. Swimming in the sea. And, crucially, not bumping into any men.
Because SuperShe Island is entirely without males. Not one. Launched late last month, it has been created by Kristina Roth, an American of German descent who sold her Seattle-based management consultancy firm in 2016. The 3.4 hectare retreat in the Gulf of Finland has everything the discerning female might want — wild swimming, saunas, yoga, massages — unless, of course, she happened to want a Y chromosome. Then she’d be out of luck. As everyone here, absolutely everyone, from the chef to the cleaners to the woman delivering the fish, is female.
I arrive on the quayside at Sandnäs Udd late on a summer’s afternoon, and am greeted by Roth. You might well have a mental image of what sort of woman founds an all-female island, and it might well involve sensible shoes. You’d be wrong. Roth turns up modelling a floral chiffon dress and a nippy silver speedboat. She is an archetypal Northern European beauty — broad-cheekboned, tiny nosed, with an aura of overwhelming wholesomeness that implies that, if she weren’t talking to you in flawless English, she’d be off telemarking to Trondheim. She helps me into the boat.
As we bounce along the waves, she explains that usually she takes visitors on the “scenic route” to the island, embarking at Höstnäs. Evidently our route is the inferior one but it is breathtaking nonetheless: sea and pines and silence. This is the Finland as seen in everything from Sibelius to the Moomins: empty, otherworldly, serene. As we approach the jetty, a family of swans glides past. Including, I later learn, a male. To check the sex of the animals says Roth, would “distract from our main vision”.
Once on the island I am given a garland of leaves (less embarrassing than it sounds) and we walk on curving paths to my cabin. There is a maximum of eight guests at any time and they share four elegant wooden cabins dotted about the island. With its curving paths and gentle mossy hills, the general look of SuperShe is like Middle Earth but with yurts. The cabins, however, are pure Scandinavian hygge. White walls; perfect white sheets and fluffy sheepskin rugs that instantly make you want to wriggle your toes in them.
There isn’t time for that now, however, as dinner is about to be served on the beach. All meals here are communal: conversation as much as relaxation is the aim, and at the table I’m introduced to the other “SuperShes”. To get a place here you have to apply and be selected, and the odds of acceptance make Ivy League entry seem breezy: this summer 8,000 women applied for 100-odd places, mostly lasting a week. My fellow SuperShes this evening include an Israeli activist and Katayoun Khosrowyar, the extraordinary coach of the Iranian women’s U-19 football team.
We sit at a chic white table on the seashore and are served dinner in the gloaming by Camilla Kaarla-Haverinen, the chef. It’s all impossibly romantic. The salad is decorated with local flowers (all the food here comes from a radius of 20 miles) and is wholesome to a fault: low-carb, no dairy and no alcohol. I mention to Camilla that some have derided the island as being all about rich women in yoga pants eating goji berries. She looks horrified. “We don’t have goji berries here,” she says. “They are not Finnish.”
As well as no booze and no goji berries there are also no social classifications: all the island’s workers, from the chef to the cleaners, sit at the table with the guests and everyone talks together. As the wind shushes in the pine trees, the conversation begins. It continues all evening and ranges over everything from the speed with which ships decay in salt water, to doing business in Iran as a woman, to one’s feelings about one’s post-childbirth body.
It’s a delight. However all-female environments rarely get a good press and this one has had its critics. Many have asked Roth if she was inspired by Wonder Woman’s Themyscira — a beautiful place but hardly a relaxing one as visitors run the risk of getting skewered by a spear. Such suspicions are millennia old: Wonder Woman was herself inspired by the Amazons, warriors so fierce they were rumoured to chop off one breast to better fire their bows (hence the name, once believed to be Greek for a- “without” and breast “-mazos”).
This however is absolutely not, Roth says, about being anti-man. She won’t deny that she, like almost every woman, has experienced discrimination and more. “If I’m looking through a MeToo lens? Yeah, I have hundreds of MeToo stories. Absolutely.” But she has no interest in dwelling or elaborating. This is not about man-bashing. It’s about helping women. If people apply to the island and say they want to come because they hate men, their application goes to the bottom of the pile.
Roth decided to found SuperShe not long after she had sold her company, Matisia Consultants. She won’t say for how much as she doesn’t like to talk about net worth. Although it’s safe to say that people who “don’t like to talk about net worth” tend not to shop at Lidl. Roth also declines to tell me her age or precisely how much she paid to buy the island last September. “I don’t like to talk about numbers . . . I’m private about certain things. I’d rather tell you how many times I had sex this week.” (Which, for the record, she doesn’t tell me either.)
The idea was to create somewhere for women to relax, recalibrate and bond. Or, as the website puts it, to “unite badass women from around the world”. She intends to open a second retreat in Turks and Caicos after this, and perhaps eventually expand to 10. The reason behind the man ban is simply because “men always have a different dynamic in groups”. (Ironically enough, she found the island through a man: her fiancé’s parents live on an island nearby; he spotted that it was for sale and encouraged her to buy it as such properties don’t come along very often.)
Critics of this modern all-female world have focused on its inherent paradox. SuperShe is an island created to help fight discrimination — but it is itself profoundly discriminatory. When news of the island first spread earlier this year, one critic told CNN it was “created by a rich, white woman for other women like her”. The Finnish equality ombudsman’s office investigated it to see if it classified as illegal discrimination. It cleared it.
“I am totally against discrimination,” says Roth. “I want to create the tools and confidence for the women to close the gap.” To see her retreat out of context of the wider picture — female discrimination, the worldwide gender pay gap — is, she says, unfair. Gender inequality primarily hits women; so naturally solutions are aimed at women. “If I would say our workshops [were on] vaginal rejuvenation, how is it discriminating against men not to invite them for vaginal rejuvenation workshops?”
Her response to criticisms about cost (a week’s stay costs €4,000) is that creating an island retreat — running power and water under the sea, and guests and food over it — doesn’t come cheap. “If I could make it for $9.99 I totally would.”
After dinner, the SuperShes and I go for a sauna. The atmosphere is fun, and sisterly. There is general debate over who will or won’t go in topless, with people largely dividing on national lines. Some women do immediately; others are teased (“Let those puppies out!”). There is something profoundly relaxing about sitting and sweating in a sauna with other women.
As the Finnish sun sets, we run to the sea to swim in the breathtaking cold. This, says one woman, is “utopia”. It’s at once a lovely description — and a dispiriting one. The word utopia is another coinage from Greek and it isn’t an optimistic one. It comes from ou, meaning “no”, and topos “place”. No place. A place so perfect it can’t exist.
After the swim, I walk alone through the woodland paths back to the communal hut. As anyone who has watched Scandi-noir knows, walking through fir forests can be a creepy experience. I notice, suddenly, an odd feeling: I’m in a darkening forest and I’m entirely at ease. I also realise that I had barely noticed I was ill at ease before. The male gaze as a constant fridge hum you only notice when it’s gone.
In the glow of the cabin, some of the women are eating granola and chatting with Camilla. I talk to Khosrowyar, the Iranian coach, and to Jennifer Lopez (not that one), a dancer who lives in Madrid. We sit, eat granola and talk about life and work and childcare and guilt. Lopez has two small children and, the second woman to do so, calls this “utopia”.
As the evening lengthens, I’m struck by how rare this is. Not for women to talk in a kitchen. But for women to sit and talk in a kitchen. As a child, I remember watching a friend’s mother in her house. Moving here, wiping there, disappearing then reappearing with washing . . . Why, I wondered, did she never sit down?
Looking back, of course, I know. She had eight children. I’m now less amazed that she never sat than that she was still standing. Sitting and talking is something that women, who do the vast majority of unpaid domestic work — often alone in their own individual domestic silos — rarely do. It’s exhausting and disempowering. How can you fight a battle for equality if you never see your other generals?
Except you do here. We talk, and swap emails. The white night has now almost gone. Tonight I will sleep the silent, deep sleep of the Finnish forests. Tomorrow, we will do yoga. But tonight, we talk and we sit and we are not alone.
Catherine Nixey is the author of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (Macmillan)
Catherine Nixey was a guest of SuperShe Island and Finnair. SuperShe Island runs from June until mid-September, a week’s stay on the island costs from €4,000 per person, including road and boat transfers from the airport; 3-day stays cost from €2,000. Finnair flies from London to Helsinki up to five times a day, from £97 return. For more visitor information see VisitFinland
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