Why Are Women (Still) Comfortable in Islam?

By Lies Marcoes (Researcher, Rumah KitaB)

Please show where and how women are placed with dignity in the conceptual framework (epistemology) of Islam? This question resounded in my mind following the discussion of Dr. Zahra Ayubi’s book Gendered Morality: Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family and Society, (Columbia University, July 2019). This is not some strange or eccentric query, but rather an accusation that demands an honest answer. Where?The virtual discussion was held on the morning of 20 May 2020 by WE LEAD, an empowerment network of seven feminist NGOs, three of which are Islam-based. We all perceive the strong rising tide of fundamentalism that threatens women’s bodies and existence as well as the diversity of Indonesia. This was truly a very special discussion, in terms of the quality of the book, the discussants, and the dialogue. Dr. Ayubi herself participated throughout the discussion, even though it was before dawn in California. The discussion was led and notes were provided by Ulil Abshar Abdalla, M.A., who has for the past several years been an expert on Imam Ghazali’s work Ngaji Ihlya. It was important to have kyai Ulil involved, because one of the texts discussed in Gendered Morality is the works of Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, better known as Imam Ghazali. Meanwhile, Dr. amina wadud (who officially prefers her name written without capital letters), serving as one of the discussants, led the discussion straight to the heart of the problem. She asked Dr. Ayubi to explain about her motivation, the basis of her arguments, and her analysis of the three texts of tasawuf (mysticism) she explored: Kimiya’i Sa’adat by Imam Ghazali, Akhlaaq-i Nasiri by Nasiruddin Tusi, and Akhlaaq-i Jalali by Jalaluddin Davani. These last two books are more popular in Iran.In his introduction to the discussion, kyai Ulil- and I concurred,  explained that mysticism has long been considered a discipline that is friendly toward women – for example, by presenting the “feminine side” of God. For many Muslim feminists, tasawuf is a branch of knowledge that can help to console them in their frustration with the teachings of Islam in other areas, which are often misogynistic and patriarchal. For example, in fiqh or dogma, women are discussed by first of all positioning them as subordinate to men. A woman is the property of her father or of some other man in his line of descent, or of her husband. Women are deemed to be only half the equal of men, and this assumption pervades practical matters such as giving testimony, inheritance rights, polygamy, and not being allowed to lead communal prayers. Sachiko Murata’s book The Tao of Islam is a study on Islamic spirituality that explores the balance of Yin and Yang and the masculine and feminine aspects in the characteristics of God. Other books, such as My Soul is a Woman by Annemarie Schimmel, also explore the feminine aspect in Islamic spirituality. But Dr. Zahra’s study and analysis leads to a very different conclusion. The construction of the teachings on akhlak (ethics), as explored in these three mystical works, is full of male-centered bias. The entire conceptual framework of thinking in mysticism about ethics solely discusses how men should behave and achieve superior moral character. In her book, she presents evidence of how these medieval Islamic intellectuals created a system of ethical philosophy that inherently has gender implications by ignoring the experience of women as subjects.

Ayubi’s study is very important and counts as new because until now, scholars of Islam who explore the issues of gender have generally criticized the patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an, the hadith, or traditions of fiqh. In the Sufi teachings as portrayed in the three works she studied, the ideal concept of a human is a man who is able to control his passions. Such an attribute can only be achieved by the elite (the nobility, higher social classes), because only these upper classes are considered intellectually capable to grasp the concepts of philosophy and to achieve realization as persons of noble character.


Methodologically, what Ayubi has done is to “interrogate” the text. To be able to analyze how gender is understood in the texts, she first examined the masculinity and the class bias contained in the texts, particularly how men – and specifically, men from the elite class, in terms of wealth, education, and power – are conditioned from birth to become patriarchs/ leaders in society. It is important to recognize here that the issue is not simply that women are not included in a given text, but rather how, overall, the texts on ethical behavior require a certain form of relationship that is based on the subordination of others (for example, wives or slaves) to men in the effort to become more ethical.


According to Ayubi, in the understanding of mysticism, the studies of akhlak and fiqh occupy different “strata”. Fiqh is seen as discourse on ethics for the common people, who do not need heavy ideas but just require practical guidelines on what is and is not permitted; in contrast, akhlak is seen as discourse on ethics that is formulated by philosophical thinking, and therefore is intended only for the upper classes/ nobles. In her research, Ayubi concluded that the discourse on ethics in tasawuf suffers not only from male gender bias but also from class bias, because it is oriented toward the male elite. Obviously, the discussion of akhlak does include some discussion of women, and also of slaves. But the main thrust of these studies is on how a man should act ethically when facing (the temptations of) women or slaves. Hence, women are discussed in their role as the touchstone to test the quality of a man’s ethics, as a direct object to test the purity of men’s souls.


The concept of akhlak in mysticism is “refinement of nafs” (purification of the heart). Kyai Ulil added that the process of purification of the heart in tasawuf consists of three concepts: takholi (cleansing the heart of negative characteristics), takhali (filling it with good characteristics), and tajali (the peak of human endeavor, becoming a person who always acts ethically). amina wadud explained how this relates to the concept of Insaan Kamil, the ideal person, which revolves around purification of the hearts of men. According to Zahra, this “refinement of nafs” is in fact a concept that is solely for cleansing the hearts of men. In this way, no different from the epistemology in the fields of fiqh and tafsir, the texts on akhlak in tasawuf are full of misogyny and gender bias.


According to Dr. Ayubi, essentially the discipline of ethics (akhlak) offers a basic perspective on the meaning of being human, especially in the concept of dien according to Islam, which offers a way and a path of life for all humans. But apart from this rich discourse on ethics, there are still many other assumptions that need to be unpacked so that the humanity of every person can be fully recognized, so that this discourse can contribute to answering how to achieve the superiority and nobility of humankind in the perspective of Islam, i.e. as insaan kamil as mentioned by amina wadud.


Dr. Ayubi notes that in these texts, the question of gender can be raised not only in those matters that often discuss women, such as marriage, but in fact in all aspects discussed in the texts. Everything includes the issue of gender. She sees that, first, although the texts she studied were written in Persian, in which the pronouns do not literally distinguish between masculine and feminine, when we read them in context it is evident that these texts specifically refer only to males. For example, when discussing how to be a better person and Muslim, or when discussing the concept of nafs (the psyche) and how to control it, what is actually meant by the text is how to become a better Muslim male and be able to control one’s nafs. As another example, in the discussion on society, such as how to be a good leader and how to deal with opponents, the entire context is men’s leadership in society.


Second, the construction of akhlak in Islamic tradition as a way of life has to date been an exclusive effort. The ethical discourse aimed at purifying and upgrading oneself continues to exclude other groups based on gender, ability, rationality, social class, and race.


Rationality is one aspect that causes women to be treated unequally in the epistemological constructs of tasawuf, as in the other epistemologies (Fiqh, Aqidah, Philosophy, Politics). In fact, all these epistemological constructs focus on rationality. Perhaps this is why women are excluded in the texts. In fact, rationality should have no gender and need not always follow the same path.


But women’s reproductive capabilities, such as menstruation, pregnancy, giving birth, postnatal confinement, which are recognized in the text of the Qur’an as extremely burdensome events, “wahnan ‘ala wahnin”, have been used as a unilateral argument that women’s rationality is lower. This also relates to the ways in which women are obstructed in performing worship. The reproductive events that women experience have been used as a judgement on their inequality with men. Their essential ability has become a stigma implying that women are less rational than men, as well as further implications departing from the same prejudice – doubting their rationality.


For Dr. Nur Rofiah, one of the initiators of KUPI (Congress of Indonesian Women Ulama), Zahra’s book further reinforces her view that there are problems within Islam’s system of knowledge, including in mysticism, which has until now been considered neutral. It turns out that tasawuf is also characterized by a masculine awareness (using males as the standard). For many centuries, the experience of women with their bodies and their reproductive capability has not been taken into account in the system of teachings/ knowledge of Islam. The long history of human civilization, including Islamic civilization, is characterized by a tradition that “does not treat women as human”. This gives rise to a collective view (including in women’s own thinking) that men are considered the standard for women’s humanity.


Yet women’s biological and social experiences, such as giving birth and nursing their children, as well as their social implications, are never experienced by men. Women’s experience with reproduction seldom even enters into men’s awareness. Meanwhile, men hold strategic positions, including in constructing the concepts of knowledge. It is this situation that creates the gaps and differences in determining the standards of benefit in gender relations. The concept of “maslahat” (benefit, advantage) relies entirely on the standard of males. The most obvious example is that when determining permission for polygamy, in terms of both ethics/ fiqih and akhlak, polygamy is justified because women have certain time restrictions for engaging in sexual relations. Rather than having some empathy for women who are menstruating, pregnant, or in post-partum seclusion, men perceive that these obstacles interfere with their own benefit, and they therefore formulate their rights themselves so that they can continue to enjoy having sex whenever they feel they need it. On this basis, they formulate polygamy as a right that is permitted for men. Another example is marriages between young girls and adult men. This practice, which creates suffering and trauma for the girls, is considered beneficial because such marriages bring benefit to men, who feel they have the right to repeatedly deflower virgins by marrying young girls!

The importance of reproduction for the survival of living creatures, which brings with it many biological experiences for women, will never be compatible with the concepts of akhlak according to masculine bodies and experience. For amina wadud, a rereading of this issue requires us to radically integrate the bodily experiences of all humankind (not just women) in constructing an understanding of humankind, insaan kamil, and then enhancing it so that spiritual refinement is not allocated only to formal rituals of worship.


Returning to the question I raised earlier, if women are treated so badly in the epistemology of Islam, why are women (still) comfortable being in Islam?

Dr. Zahra Ayubi stated that texts such as the ones she explored should not automatically be ignored. An effort is needed to reexamine them critically and in depth, and to raise critical questions at a more philosophical and cosmic level. We can ask what the ethical basis is in interpreting the meaning of being a Muslim, what is the purpose of human existence, and what it means to surrender oneself to Allah. She recommends that Muslim intellectuals should collectively and sincerely think about a more inclusive philosophy of ethics that does not merely construct happiness based on the concept of use of reason (such that rationality holds the most important position and neglects other kinds of experience). The current definition of akhlak is problematic, because it excludes the experience of women.


Ideally, the texts on akhlak should be able to acknowledge the diversity of humankind – not just in terms of gender, but also race, ability, and class. The recognition of this diversity could give rise to a diversity of standards – not just a single standard for achieving “refinement”. And this would be more appropriate, because the various differences, social constructs, and structural challenges will lead to differences in defining the obstacles each individual faces in achieving the potential of their nafs.


I held a virtual discussion with several of my feminist colleagues. They provided some answers that seem quite reasonable to me. The most common answer was that women lack the courage or willingness to leave Islam, because the ties that bind them are so tight and strong. Imagine: from the day she is born, the first stones are laid in the walls that guard her; she is the daughter (binti) of a particular father, and the entire family line of the patriarchal hierarchy feels they have rights over her. Starting even as a baby, she is told of her obligation to maintain the dignity of the family, and then of ever-widening circles, until she must protect the reputation of the entire “Muslim community”. If she chooses to become an apostate, for example, how many people will feel they have the right to punish her? In this sense, the question of “comfortable or not” becomes irrelevant.

Second was an answer which asserts that within religion there are in fact aspects of affection, warmth, a feeling of peace, a devout relationship between individual women and their God. This experience is not codified as a discipline of knowledge, nor is it institutionalized. This is because women’s experience is not known by the men who have for so long constructed the epistemology of Islam. These aspects of warmth in religion live and are passed on as a secret among women from generation to generation. The experience of reproduction is something only they experience, which they do not share with those who will never be able to understand it (men) and who consider it a taboo subject. They choose to maintain an internal love, with their Creator, whom they treat as their beloved.

Another option is to leave Islam and take up some other religion or ideology that defends women, such as secular philosophy and thinking that is based on the legal system. But such an option does not necessarily provide space for women. And finally, and I think this is the path that is now being pursued by feminist Muslims, including Dr. Zahra Ayubi: seize the tafsir (interpretation)! The epistemology of Islam already offers a wealth of methodologies that can be criticized and reused to provide a critique that presents the experiences of women as valid truth. In this way, the epistemology of Islam can be reexamined and reconstructed! []


What Being Malala’s Father Taught Me About Feminism

By Ziauddin Yousafzai

June 14, 2019
Yousafzai is the author of Let Her Fly: A Father’s Journey, a memoir about his fight for women’s rights in Pakistan and his relationship with his daughter, Malala

Long before my daughter, Malala Yousafazi, was born, long before we began fighting for girls’ rights to education together, and long before the Taliban’s brutal attack on her brought the world’s attention to her story, I made a decision.

Growing up in a village in Shangla, northern Pakistan, I was surrounded by patriarchy. I had five sisters and a brother and I saw how we boys got better shoes, more clothes, and tastier cuts of chicken than the girls. I saw how my mother couldn’t go out unescorted and, on documents like doctors’ prescriptions, was never referred to by her name – Maharo Bibi – but as mother of Ziauddin, or wife of Rohul Amin. And, worst of all, I saw how I got to go to school, while my sisters stayed home, crippling their future.

I was very determined that if I ever got to be a father, I’d be different.

When I married my wife, Toor Pekai, we chose to build an egalitarian family, respecting each other as equal partners and raising our daughter Malala the same way we raised our sons, Khusal and Atal. I didn’t hear the word feminist until I was 45, after the attack on Malala led us to move to the city of Birmingham in the U.K. But it was feminism I had been trying to spread in my family, and in my community, for years.

I believe fathers have a crucial role to play in the fight for women’s rights. Of course, when your rights are being violated — at home, at work, anywhere — your voice is the most powerful to challenge your oppression. And so women’s voices are the most important in feminism. But in patriarchal societies, a father’s voice is perhaps the next most important tool to galvanize change.

We have seen great moments in history, from the Suffragettes, to #MeToo, and wonderful global organizations and local organizations, who are working for gender equality, and for the rights of women and girls. But in patriarchal societies – which even many Western countries still are –, one platform, one organization, is universal: the family. When a father begins a journey into feminism, believing in the worth of his daughters, he can change his whole family’s future.

I’m not sure why I chose to start that journey, while other men accept the values passed down to them for centuries. Maybe it’s because I was bullied as a child, for my dark skin and my stammering problem, so I was angry about any kind of discrimination against someone for the way they are born.

But I am sure of one thing: patriarchy is sheer stupidity. Fathers have a great interest in dismantling it. And we as campaigners need to communicate that to them.

Life within patriarchy is a sad, frustrated life, for everyone. I have seen families in Pakistan where a father and mother have one boy and five or six girls. Because of social norms, the father and his one son go out to earn for the whole family. The burden falls to them, while all his sisters have to stay back at home, not sent to school, unable to do jobs, just waiting to get married. A guy sacrifices his life for a foolish norm, and girls don’t see their potential unlocked. And, even in countries like the U.S. and the U.K., while girls are educated and often have the same opportunities as boys, issues like pay inequality, sexual harassment and misogyny continue to damage girls’ careers and personal lives. Unhappiness breeds unhappiness.

Fathers who help unlock their daughter’s potential, standing up for their rights and raising them to believe they have them, bring prosperity and happiness to their entire families. Worldwide, according to our data at the Malala Fund and the World Bank, if we gave all the girls in the world free, quality education for 12 years, we would add between 15 and 30 trillion dollars to the world economy. It really is win, win.

These arguments are powerful, and the arguments for patriarchy are weak. That is why the Taliban shot Malala in 2012 as she and I campaigned against their ban on girls going to school. They knew that one girl with a voice can create more change than their guns and bombs.

The attack was the worst thing that could happen to a family and remembering it is traumatic. Malala is not just my daughter, she is my comrade, my soulmate – jani, in Urdu, my nickname for her. To see her on the verge between life and death was terrible. But it did not affect our commitment to equality. If anything, it made us more sure that our fight is worthwhile.

Now, as Malala campaigns around the world without me and studies for her degree at Oxford University, I miss her deeply. Her first week in her dorm room, I peeked in and shed a few tears while she wasn’t there, thinking about how independent she has become.

But in my heart, I was so happy to see her move freely and confidently around the world, no longer needing me as an escort. Good parents should want their children to be as independent as early as possible.

Within my family, we have broken the chains of patriarchy. Because of that, all of us — not only Malala and Toor Pekai, but my sons and I too — are free.

As told to Ciara Nugent



Sultan of Yogyakarta: A feminist revolution in an ancient kingdom

The Sultan of Yogyakarta holds a powerful political and spiritual position on the Indonesian island of Java. He is manoeuvring to make his eldest daughter his heir, sparking a bitter feud, as the BBC’s Indonesia editor Rebecca Henschke reports.

“From generation to generation the sultan who reigns over Yogyakarta seems to adapt himself to the changing of times,” says Wedono Bimo Guritno quietly as he ushers me through the elaborate palace complex.

He is one of the nearly 1,500 abdi dalam, members of the royal court. A keris, a sacred Javanese dagger, is tucked into his sarong.

“In the past it was not difficult to choose a prince, because in the past, the sultan had more than one wife,” Wedono Bimo Guritno tells me. We duck under low gateways into a maze of tree-lined courtyards surrounding the Kraton Kilen, the Sultan’s private residence.

“But you know it’s always been women that hold the real power in Javanese households,” Bimo says with a smile.

Younger princess at her wedding

Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Hayu says she was raised to be equal with men

As is required of anyone entering the palace, I have been traditionally dressed and groomed for over an hour. I am in a tight batik sarong, with a black silk blouse known as a kebaya. My hair has been pulled back and tied into tight bun, a sanggul.

Everything in this palace, from the placement of trees to the movements made by the royal court, has meaning.

In Javanese culture, things are not said directly, but instead conveyed by symbolism.

The sultan, who is 72, recently changed his own title so that it is gender neutral and has given his eldest daughter the new name Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Mangkubumi – which means The One Who Holds the Earth.

That was seen as further indication she is being lined up to take over the throne when the time comes.

The princess laughs when I say her title holds a lot of responsibility.

“As in all families, as the eldest I have more responsibility than my sisters. But what the future holds, that decision is the hands of my father,” she says with a smile.

She rarely talks publicly about succession and is careful with her words.

“I have been raised not to dream about those things, or hold wishes beyond living a happy life now.”

But she adds: “There have been queens in Aceh and in other Islam kingdoms, that’s all I need to say.”

Eldest daughter during our exclusive interview

Princess Mangkubumi has been given the title The One Who Holds the Earth

Her younger sister, Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Hayu, is bolder in speaking about the unprecedented power the princesses have been given.

They were all sent overseas to study in Europe, America and Australia and now hold various leadership positions in the palace that were once the domain of men.

“I am very lucky to have parents that never said that is not a woman’s job,” she says in fluent English.

“It doesn’t sit well with some people but when the sultan says so, you kind of have to go along with it,” she laughs.

“That’s the importance of a man saying that it’s not the time for women to stay back any more.”

They will be evicted

The sultan’s brothers and sisters are not going along with it. They are outraged and most of them, like GBPH Prabukusumo, are now refusing to speak with the sultan or attend royal events.

“We are an Islamic royal family and the title is for a man. What would we call her – the sultante? It’s impossible,” he laughs.

Two of the most outspoken brothers of the sultan

The sultan’s siblings are no longer talking to him or attending royal events

He says the move is a dangerous break with hundreds of years of tradition and accused his brother’s family of being power-hungry and greedy.

And he sends a strong warning about what will happen.

“We have made a family commitment that we will not fight now, but when the sultan has left this world, we have an agreement with the people that we will drive his wife and his daughters out of the palace.”

“They will be evicted, as they are no longer members of our family,” he says.

That would create quite I stir, I say.

“That’s OK, just remember who is in the wrong here.”

Two queens?

Outside the palace walls most people are reluctant to take sides, saying they will accept the decision of the royal family.

Women of the court.

There is concern about what the Queen of the South Sea will think of a female monarch

But among the devoted followers there is concern about what the Queen of the South Sea will think.

The Javanese royal rule stretches back to the 16th Century and while the family is now Muslim like most Indonesians, the rituals they carry out are steeped in mysticism, a product of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism of the past.

And tradition has it that the Sultan of Yogyakarta has to take the goddess Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul as his mystical wife.

“There is a vow between the sultan and the Queen of the South Sea Loro Kidul that has been written down in our sacred text, that together they will rule and keep the peace,” explains the Sultan’s brother GBPH Yudaningrat.

Fingernail clippings and locks of the sultan’s hair are offered to the sea goddess every year. They are also offered to the ogre Sapu Jagat inside Mount Merapi, one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes that looms over the city.

Women doing ceremonial cooking of sacred cakes.

Rituals in the palace are carried out in the same way they have been for hundreds of years

The offerings and spiritual union are meant to ensure the sacred alignment between the volcano, the palace in the middle, and the Indian Ocean, and thus the safety of the people.

“What will happen if there are two queens? How can they be together? I am not sure that can happen,” asks Agus Suwanto, a tour guide outside the palace.

That’s a good question and a good point, smiles Wedono Bimo Guritno, the palace guide, when I ask him.

“The sultan’s role is to keep both the goddess of the south sea and the god of the volcano in balance. Some people forget about the volcano, god. I am sure the sultan will make a wise decision for the people of Yogyakarta.”

Challenging times

The Sultan of Yogyakarta also has to make decisions about more earthly matters as the governor of the city and the surrounding area.


When Indonesia gained independence, Jakarta allowed the Yogyakarta royal family to keep its power, out of gratitude for their role in fighting the colonial Dutch rulers.

So Yogyakarta is the only place in Indonesia where residents don’t get to directly elect their leader. When it was suggested by Jakarta that this should change in 2010 there were angry protests on the streets of Yogyakarta and the central government backed down.

Yogya boy wearing campaign image of the Queens bid for the senate.

The Sultan of Yogyakarta is the last in Indonesia with real political power.

But Sultan Hamengkubuwono X has been a controversial modern leader with wide ranging political and business ambitions.

When Mount Merapi started erupting in 2006 he told villagers to listen to scientists rather than the palace-appointed gatekeeper of the volcano about when to evacuate.

And some in Yogyakarta accuse him of turning this cultural, once sleepy, capital into a city of shopping malls, billboards and high-rise buildings.

Mystic Islam

These are challenging times for Java’s unique moderate, mystical form of Islam that the Sultan and the Kraton represents.

Sultan Hamengkubuwono X with Prince Charles.

Sultan Hamengkubuwono X is a prominent moderate Islamic leader.

Veneration of objects or idols, and hints to polytheism, run in conflict with the Wahhabis strain of Islam that is growing in popularity in Java.

“I run the social media pages for the palace and I see this conservative view,” says Princess Gusti Hayu.

“But we have reasons why we carry out rituals here the way we do and it might not be exactly the same as in the Koran but we don’t stray, we don’t do weird cult things,” she laughs.

Princess Haryu showing respect to her mother and father.

Princess Haryu says opening up the palace is the only way for the culture to survive

“This is an Islamic kingdom, it’s not about walking around looking like someone from the Middle East and just sounding very religious. Islam is woven into everything we do daily.”

She says past royal families took pride in being exclusive and being shrouded in mysticism, but that the way to survive is to open the palace up.

“So the young don’t lose touch with their Javanese side because if we lose our cultural identity it’s not going to come back.”

Despite an increasing number of young Javanese Muslim women now choosing to wear the headscarf, hijabs are not allowed in the palace.

“Lots of women who wear the headscarf take it off when they enter the Kraton for rituals, voluntarily, and put it on again when they leave,” says the Queen Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Hemas .

“This is not about religion, it’s about protecting our culture and tradition and society understands that. The Sultan is above all religions.”

But this is increasingly a provocative stance to take in today’s Indonesia.

Recently the daughter of Indonesia’s first President Sukarno, Sukmawati, was reported to the police for blasphemy and forced to apologise for saying in a poem that the Javanese hairbun was more beautiful than a Islamic chador.

Queen during the interview

Queen Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Hemas is accused by the Sultans family of leading the revolt.

The sultan’s extended family accuses the queen, who is a senator in the national parliament, of leading the revolt against tradition.

She says she raised her daughters to be independent and to believe they were equal to men.

“When my daughters were 15 years I told them they had to leave the palace, to get educated in the world, to bring back what they learnt.”

Grooming them for leadership? I ask.

That decision is in the hands of the sultan, she says firmly.

“But, yes, the heir has to be the bloodline, so there is no need for you to dig deeper.”

“There will always be conflict and power struggles at times of change,” she adds.


‘Feminism’ is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, thanks in part to Kellyanne Conway

This is the year when a sea of pink dominated the streets of several American cities, the year when #MeToo became a symbolic driving force against sexual misconduct by men, and when a group of women — “The Silence Breakers” — graced the cover of Time as the voices that launched that movement.

These events, says Merriam-Webster, are the reasons 2017 was a big year for feminism — at least literally.

The online dictionary has dubbed “feminism” its word of the year, meaning it is the most-searched word on Merriam-Webster’s website. Lookups for the definition of feminism increased by 70 percent over last year. There were also several major spikes that coincide with major news events, said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large.

“No one word can ever encapsulate all the news, events, or stories of a given year, particularly a year with so much news and so many stories,” Sokolowski said. “But when a single word is looked up with great volume, it also stands out as one associated with several different important stories. We can learn something about ourselves through the prism of vocabulary.”

Sokolowski said the first such spike happened in January, when thousands of women packed the streets of several cities in the United States and beyond in a massive act of defiance against a newly inaugurated president. Discussions on what the word meant to attendees and organizers of the Women’s March, and whether the protest was a show of feminism, fueled the spike, he said.

Searches for the word spiked again the following month, when Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, distanced herself from the term.

“It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion, and I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion. So, there’s an individual feminism, if you will, that you make your own choices…. I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances,” Conway said during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Maryland last February.

Conway praised Trump for hiring women and encouraged women to run for president. She also decried the “presumptive negativity” about women in positions of power.

“You know, this whole sisterhood, this whole ‘let’s go march for women’s rights’ and, you know, just constantly talking about what women look like or what they wear or making fun of their choices or presuming that they’re not as powerful as the men around,” she said.

Conway did not respond to an email requesting comment Tuesday morning about Merriam-Webster crediting her statement for the popularity of the word “feminism.”

Merriam-Webster said the storm of revelations in the latter half of 2017 and the emergence of #MeToo, a hashtag that countless of women used on social media to say that they have been victims of some form of sexual misconduct or harassment, resulted in a steady increase in searches for what feminism is.

The news cycle during the latter half of 2017 was dominated with stories about sexual assault and sexual harassment. The public watched the fall from grace of one popular and powerful man after another — Harvey Weinstein, Sen. Al Franken, Rep. John Conyers Jr., Matt LauerCharlie Rose, Louis C.K. and several others.

Allegations of sexual misconduct against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, as first revealed by The Washington Post, rocked the special election in Alabama, where voters on Tuesday are selecting a candidate to fill the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Movies also played a role.

Merriam-Webster said curiosity about the definition of feminism spiked following the release of “Wonder Woman,” headlined by Jewish actress Gal Gadot and created by the first woman to direct a big-budget superhero movie, and the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on a novel about a dystopian and totalitarian society where women are stripped of their rights and forced into sexual servitude.

The definition of feminism has evolved since it was first entered in the English dictionary by Noah Webster in 1841. Once defined as simply “the qualities of females,” feminism is now “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests,” according to Merriam-Webster.

Another word that became popular this year is “complicit,” which ranks No. 2 in Merriam-Webster’s top 10 list and was recently declared word of the year by Both online dictionaries said spikes in searches for the word involved Ivanka Trump, the president’s oldest daughter and a current White House adviser. Merriam-Webster said the word spiked in March when Ivanka Trump responded to accusations that she was being complicit in her father’s decisions.

“I don’t know that the critics who may say that of me, if they found themselves in this very unique and unprecedented situation that I am now in, would do any differently than I am doing,” Ivanka Trump said. She added later: “I don’t know what it means to be complicit. But you know, I hope time will prove that I have done a good job and, much more importantly, that my father’s administration is the success I know it will be.”

She was later parodied by “Saturday Night Live,” when Scarlett Johansson, dressed in a glittery gold gown, glided into a gilded room as she modeled for a fragrance called Complicit.

Other words that made Merriam-Webster’s top 10 are: recuse, popularized by Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from investigations involving Russia and the presidential election; dotard, an old-fashioned word that North Korean President Kim Jong Un used to described President Trump; and gaffe, specifically, the envelope fiasco that led to the announcement of the wrong winner for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Merriam-Webster has become popular over the past two years for its viral trolling of Trump. The dictionary mocked Trump several times in 2016, when the then-presidential candidate misspelled words in his tweets (unpresidented, honer, leightweight and chocker).

John Wagner and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.