The loss of Baghouz in March 2019 marked the long-awaited territorial collapse of Islamic State’s (IS, or ISIS) ‘caliphate’. As a result, Kurdish forces in Syria captured thousands of its remaining fighters and supporters, with many occupying camps such as al-Hol. Though once effective to initially detain and process IS-affiliated persons, the population of such camps now far exceeds maximum capacity. As of September 2019, al-Hol alone holds over 68,000 people, 94 percent of whom are women and children. As states struggle to reach conclusions or consensus on the long-term fate of detainees, enduring commitment to IS and its cause remains of critical concern.
IS recruited women on an unprecedented scale. Adult females represent up to 16 percent of foreign nationals who traveled to join the group in Iraq and Syria, together with unknown numbers of locals. Consistent with the peaks and troughs of IS control, the roles of women within its ranks have developed. This paper examines the evolution of female IS members’ ideological commitment, adopted roles, and independent activism. Shifting from the ‘caliphate’ to Kurdish-run camps in Northeastern Syria, developments in the status of its female members provide insight into how IS may navigate its post-territorial phase and potential recovery.
At the peak of governance over its proto-state, IS sought to control all aspects of life within its territory. Ideologically justified through its strict interpretation of shariʿa law, its influence in both the public and private spheres resulted in disproportionate regulation of women’s lives. At the centre of IS’ policies were a set of gendered norms and expectations—in particular, its vision of womanhood.