Top-Down or Bottom-Up? Towards a Theory of Change for Human Rights Practice in Iran

  • Rebecca Barlow
  • Shahram Akbarzadeh
Part of the Studies in Iranian Politics book series (STIRPO)


In the Islamic Republic of Iran, as in other highly restricted environments, there are major problems with employing human rights discourse to pursue change. Local proponents of human rights have been subject to intense harassment, intimidation and repression at the hands of the regime. They also face internal challenges around leadership, organisation and capacity. One way of addressing these problems is to work towards grounding human rights work in Iran within a ‘theory of change’: that is, the strategic linking of a goal or concept (the theory) with the mechanisms or methodologies that are designed to deliver on the promise of the goal or concept (the change). Building on work by Paul Gready and Wouter Vandenhole (Human Rights and Development in the New Millennium: Towards a Theory of Change. Routledge, 2014) on agents of change and their key entry points, this chapter explores two distinct approaches to change in Iran: the political reform movement, exhibiting a top-down/inside-track approach; and the women’s movement’s One Million Signatures Campaign, exhibiting a bottom-up/outside track approach. The authors consider a series of fundamental factors put forward by Rosalind Eyben et al. (Development in Practice 18, no. 2: 201–12, 2008) underpinning the development of a theory of change: objectives, targets, strategies, constraints, roles, relationships and context.

The issue of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran has preoccupied scholars and the international community since the early 1980s. Iran is a State Party to five of the ten Core International Human Rights Instruments embedded in the United Nations treaty system.1 The core human rights treaties are binding on members, meaning that States Parties are obligated to ensure consistency between national laws and international standards. However, Iran has made sweeping reservations to the treaties that are incompatible with the objects and purposes of the principles laid out in the texts. While the Iranian government has been subject to serious criticism for failing to promote and protect human rights, it claims to be adhering to Islamic principles of justice that are more culturally relevant to the lives of its citizens. There is, however, a wide gap between the official position of Iran’s tight circle of governing elites and many liberal thinkers operating at the margins, outside the formal corridors of power. Hassan Rouhani’s election nomination in 2013 was a regime response to the deepening crisis of legitimacy, which he promised to address by restoring popular will and respect for human rights. This message reverberated among the reformist camp and the range of civic initiatives that galvanised around social grievances. At the grassroots level, advocacy efforts like the One Million Signatures Campaign demanding an end to all discrimination against women have promoted the accord between universal human rights standards and Islamic principles.

In 2007 Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi said: ‘Human rights discourse is alive and well [in Iran] and civil society considers it the most powerful framework for achieving sustainable reform.’2 This is a powerful statement by one of Iran’s foremost voices of progressive change. But it is one that requires some interrogation. Human rights approaches to change are grounded in norms that claim universality and an ethic of giving voice to the oppressed, and there are qualitative indications of a growing domestic culture that supports human rights in Iran. However, reports of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran suggest that overall the human rights situation in Iran is not improving , and that in some respects, it is getting worse.3

As in other highly restricted environments there are several problems with employing human rights discourse in the pursuit of progressive change in the Islamic Republic. Proponents of human rights are often subject to intense harassment, intimidation and repression. This includes those who attempt to work inside formal avenues. Two prominent regime insiders seeking reform, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, have been under house arrest following their refusal to accept the 2009 re-election of conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But human rights actors also face a number of internal challenges relating to leadership, organisation and capacity. Grassroots movements (for example, the Green Movement) are often ad-hoc, reactionary and short-lived. In addition, it is rare for agents of change working in different arenas to come together to share best practice and support one another’s efforts in coordinated and complementary ways. To the contrary, they sometimes demonstrate mutual antagonism and mistrust. The most obvious example of this is the lack of a systematic and sustained working relationship between civil-society activists and political reformists. Efforts towards human rights reform in Iran have failed not only because of their difficult operating environment, but also because of internal strategic miscalculations. Operational shortcomings have undermined the potential of human rights advocacy in Iran.

Conceptual Framework and Aims

This volume seeks to shed light on the above problem by grounding human rights work in Iran within a theory of change. A theory of change links a goal or concept (the theory) with the mechanisms or methodologies that are designed to deliver on the promise of the goal or concept (the change).4 It is a model of how influencing activities are envisioned to result in positive change in policy or in people’s lives. Working within a theory of change is standard practice for development agencies. It is less common for human rights actors, who tend to rely on the ethic of their claims to universality rather than an evidence base of causal links between strategies and outcomes. But by examining issues such as causation, influence, sequencing, prioritisation, and roles and relationships, a theory of change can ultimately make human rights work more effective. The potential advantage of rendering a theory of change explicit is that it provides a vantage point from which influencing activities can be viewed, coordinated and, if necessary, reformed.5

Paul Gready and Wouter Vandenhole’s work on key entry points to theories of change provides the conceptual starting point for this volume. They suggest that agents of change exert influence through five distinct avenues: the state; the law; transnational and international collaboration; local and grassroots action; and multiple and complex methods.6 A simplified way of thinking about key entry points is to consider what assumptions a theory of change might put forward about the most appropriate direction of change. The pursuit of change through the state and the law, for example, exemplifies the top-down/inside-track approach to reform. On the other hand, localised, grassroots initiatives for change exemplify the bottom-up/outside track approach. The authors in this volume offer a critical analysis of the work being undertaken in Iran to influence change from both directions: top-down/inside track (through state policies, programs and law reform) and bottom-up/outside track (through projects, campaigns and operational activities by grassroots movements).

Dara Conduit and Shahram Akbarzadeh, Leila Alikarami, and Ghoncheh Tazmini, for example, tackle the top-down/inside-track approach. In Chap.  2, Conduit and Akbarzadeh look at the role of the state with a case study on the Rouhani government’s policy initiatives to establish greater internet freedom in Iran. In Chap.  3, Tazmini also takes the Rouhani government as a case study for state-led change, examining how his administration has attempted to modernise Iran in a way that remains in line with the central pillars of Iran’s political philosophy (republicanism, development, justice and independence). In Chap.  4, Alikarami explores the role of the law in facilitating change, through an analysis of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre and the efforts of its members to advocate for legal, policy and structural reform in Iran.

Other authors deal with the bottom-up/outside track approach to change. In Chap.  5, Payam Akhavan provides a powerful case study on the Iran People’s Tribunal, highlighting the power of grassroots justice as an alternative to impunity. In Chap.  6, Rebecca Barlow looks at secular and Islamic feminist work to increase women’s parliamentary representation in Iran, arguing that a more formal working alliance between the two groups will enhance efforts for change. In Chap.  7, Ali Honari examines the revival of the Iranian student movement in the post-Ahmadinejad years, analysing both external and internal constraints on revitalisation, as well as the strategies employed by student activists to face those challenges. In Chap.  8, Simin Fadaee analyses how the environment movement in Iran has morphed and shifted its objectives and strategies over time so as to avoid full demobilisation. And in Chap.  9, Meysam Badamchi explores the complex issue of multiculturalism in Iran, arguing that a lack of dialogue between pro-democracy reformists and minority ethnic groups is stifling progress. In Chap.  10, we provide a synthesis of lessons learned from each case study, drawing out what does and does not seem to work well in terms of leading and facilitating the promotion and protection of human rights in Iran.

Importantly, it is not the intent of this volume to construct theories of change on behalf of agents of change in Iran. Rather, using a framework of inquiry developed by Rosalind Eyben et al., the authors address a number of fundamental questions underpinning the development of a theory of change: What are agents of change trying to achieve? Who are they trying to influence? What strategies are or would be most effective? What are the constraints on change? How do agents of change understand their particular role and strengths in effecting change, and what is their relationship with others seeking to achieve change? What kinds of partnerships would be most effective in achieving the change? And what else is happening that may affect the outcomes of their efforts?7 These questions can be annotated as a consideration of objectives, targets, strategies, constraints, roles and relationships, and context.

Through an analysis of these aspects for both top-down and bottom-up initiatives, the authors seek to contribute towards being able to think more strategically about human rights in Iran and how agents of change might review and revise their efforts for greater impact. In the final chapter of this volume, we offer a summary of lessons learned from each chapter’s case study, and consider the potential development of ‘multiple and complex methods’ for future human rights work in Iran. The focus of this volume is on the policy and practice of human rights, not human rights theory. The authors collectively take the position that the doctrine of human rights represents a universally valid and worthy project, and they do not question its moral legitimacy or cross-cultural relevance.

To set the framework for the volume, the current chapter examines two of the most widely acknowledged approaches to the promotion of human rights in Iran through a theory-of-change lens: the first is the political reform movement of the late 1990s, which promoted pluralism, civil society and the rule of law; the second is the One Million Signatures Campaign (OMSC) of the mid-2000s, a grassroots initiative that called for an end to all discriminatory laws against women. We examine the key factors underpinning a theory of change for both the reform movement and the OMSC : namely, their objectives, targets, strategies, constraints, roles and relationships, and context. A careful review of each operational facet suggests that both initiatives faltered not only because of Iran’s highly restrictive operating environment, but also due to internal strategic missteps that occurred in the absence of an explicit theory of change.

Top-Down/Inside-Track Approach: The Reform Movement (1997–2005)

Reformist politicians in Iran may not fit neatly within a classical view of ‘human rights actors’, yet they are a vital force to acknowledge given they provide the only political alternative to hardliners among the governing elite. The reformists’ core mission is to empower elected institutions and to hold unelected offices more accountable. Movements for political reform in Iran encompass a complex set of organisations including both clerical and lay reformist parties, nationalist groups and the grassroots student movement. In this section, we consider the political insiders led by President Mohammad Khatami during the official reform movement from 1997 to 2005.

With the benefit of hindsight, Khatami’s reform movement is widely viewed as a failed experiment. Most scholarship concerned with the topic attributes the failure of reform to the constraints of the operating environment—that is, the veto power of Iran’s clerical elite over the parliament (Majlis). There is, however, a smaller body of work which argues that the trajectory of reformism was not preordained but was due to the movement’s strategic miscalculations.8 Maysam Behravesh argues that Khatami’s ultimate failure to implement social and political reform ‘was not simply the result of incidental stumbling blocks or even structural hindrances on the ground’, but can be ascribed in part to ‘his lack of an organized plausible strategy for implementing change’.9 A consideration of the reform movement’s objectives, targets, strategies, constraints, roles, relationships and context helps shed light on this problem. Such an inquiry also presents important lessons for moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who came to power in 2013 on a platform that echoed Khatami’s in its promises for change and pledges to remedy human rights abuses in Iran.

Objectives, Targets and Strategies

The reform movement had a number of key rights-based objectives at its core. They included enhancing democratic principles such as transparency and accountability within government; building civil society, in large part by increasing the freedom of the press to publish alternative perspectives to that of the establishment; and promoting the rule of law. In order to move towards each of these objectives, the obvious targets of Khatami and his reformist colleagues in the parliament were conservative clerics making up the Guardian Council, which is vested with the authority to pass or dismiss draft legislation. In this sense, reformists directed their optimism towards the elite, believing they could persuade opponents to limit their own powers. This optimism was born of two decades of working within the system; some leading clerics in the executive were friends and relatives of leading reformists.10 In 2000 a newspaper affiliated with Khatami’s administration said: ‘We believe there is a rational faculty at the upper level of the regime that has always rescued the country at the edge of the precipice.’11 This view was echoed in other reformist publications: ‘The best way to engage the enemies of civil society is to give them this opportunity to rethink and let them readjust. We should show them in practice that transition to democracy presents greater opportunity than threats.’12 Another put it simply: ‘There is no way to change the world than to act within legal institutions.’13

Khatami was a champion and beneficiary of the Islamic Revolution. He owed his position to the Islamic regime, as did many of his followers in the parliament (Majlis). The reform movement, therefore, was an attempt at top-down reform from within the formal boundaries of the regime. Khatami took the inside track and sought to work closely with decision-makers to solicit change. He avoided open confrontation and withdrew whenever the reform agenda was on the verge of transgressing regime boundaries. Khatami’s chief strategist and advisor was Said Hajjarian, Vice-President of Tehran’s Municipal Council, who believed that change could be achieved by revitalising the republican aspects of the constitution. Hajjarian proposed soliciting piecemeal compromises from the ruling clergy by cultivating the values of tolerance and dialogue.14 For this reason, political negotiation was coupled with what Kadivar terms ‘active tranquillity’: deliberate avoidance of collective action and mass mobilisation.15 Political reformers worried that such actions would provoke the reaction of hardliners, and acknowledged that they did not have the means to keep public demonstrations under control or on message. The preference for active tranquillity among reformers was the result of the years they had spent working within a repressive system: Khatami and his colleagues had all witnessed the regime’s capacity and willingness to silence radical voices with death, exile or imprisonment.16

Khatami’s reform agenda relied on the constitutional foundations of the Islamic Republic. Although the constitution gives predominance to religious law and clerical authority based on divine will, it also incorporates the will of the people. Khatami sought to amplify the latter aspects of the constitution through Islamic vernacular and the creation of an indigenous discourse on good governance and popular sovereignty. His ideas of a revitalised civil society in which social, cultural, economic and political human rights were respected were based on the Islamic concept of Madinat al-Nabi, City of the Prophet.17 This formed the basis of a liberal reading of the constitution where the power invested in the Supreme Leader would be balanced with a responsibility to protect human rights. Khatami promoted indigenous sources of democracy and espoused the Islamic tradition of ijtihad as a process of theological reasoning by which holy sources could be reinterpreted based on contemporary circumstances.

Before long, a popular pro-Khatami press flourished and spread his political discourse of civil society (jamea-ye madani), legality (qanun-mandi), citizenship (shahrvandan), pluralism (pluralizm, takkathur-gara’i), rule of law (qanun-gara’i) and ‘reading’ (qera’at) of Islam.18 In 1999 the leading body of the student movement, the Office for Strengthening Unity , began Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), which quickly became an impressive and reliable source of news. These were positive signs in terms of Khatami’s vision to increase the capacity of the press to provide checks and balances on power. Civil society grew in the early years of Khatami’s presidency. Political associations rose from 35 in 1997 to 130 by 2001. Professional and advocacy NGOs (non-government organisations) including those focused on women, youth and the environment exceeded 2500 after 2001.19

Context and Constraints

The reform movement’s choice of strategies failed adequately to take into account the contextual constraints they would face. While Iran’s constitution exhibits republican aspects, it very clearly bestows ultimate authority upon the most learned Islamic jurist (the Supreme Leader, or Vali Faqih) over elected politicians. After reformists won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections of February 2000, securing a majority of seats in the house, the conservatives lost their patience with the reform experiment. The reaction was swift and dramatic. The Guardian Council, which reports directly to the Supreme Leader and enjoys constitutional powers to vet candidates, used its authority to annul a number of seats won by reformist parliamentarians. The Guardian Council is further mandated to ensure all proposed legislation remains in line with the regime’s official interpretation of Islamic sources. The popularly elected reformist parliament was powerless in making laws or enforcing them. The Guardian Council consistently blocked bills that were seen to weaken the conservative hold over society, including an electoral reform bill aimed at curbing the Guardian Council’s powers to vet candidates for parliamentary polls20; and the Presidential Powers bill, which would have given the President the right to stop the conservative judiciary from closing liberal newspapers and prosecuting reformist journalists and political activists in closed-door trials.21 The judiciary and law enforcement agencies remained in the firm grip of the conservative camp and actively blocked reform. The Majlis was deprived of the right to investigate breaches of the law and barred from looking into any organisation under the control of the Supreme Leader, including the courts, the armed forces, and national radio and television stations.

The Supreme Leader’s control over the mass media was a key factor in curtailing the spread of Khatami’s message. While Khatami called upon the media to spread messages around human rights, pluralism and tolerance, he had no authority to enforce that. This disparity was made public in April 2000 when the Supreme Leader publicly declared reformist journalism ‘a grave threat’, which precipitated a systematic move by the judiciary to shut down reformist newspapers and periodicals that had sprung to life in the early years of Khatami’s presidency.22 Between 1997 and 2002, 108 newspapers and periodicals were banned. Most significantly, the Supreme Leader issued instructions to the Majlis to stop its deliberations on reforming press laws. This was a clear departure from past practice where the Supreme Leader had refrained from interjecting in the daily affairs of the state. The reformist-dominated parliament withdrew in the face of this directive. The lines of authority were publicly reiterated by the Speaker of the Parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, who advised members of Majlis to respect the wishes of the Supreme Leader. (Ironically, over time, Karoubi himself grew disillusioned with the status quo and has been under house arrest since the Green Movement anti-regime uprisings of 2009). The popularly elected parliament, serving in tandem with the reformist President Khatami, had the best chance of challenging the status quo to refashion the power balance the Islamic Republic. It was a historic opportunity to breathe meaning into the constitutional principles of popular sovereignty. By not rising to the challenge, daunting as it would have been, the reformist camp opened the door to the surreptitious expansion of Vali Faqih’s powers.

Failure to Restrategise and Ruptures in Key Relationships

Another significant strategic error was the reformists’ failure to review and reconsider their approach when it was obviously not working. Khatami continued to try to solve problems through negotiation with the Supreme Leader. When the reformist newspaper Salam was banned in 1999, mass student riots ensued. The Revolutionary Guards intervened and raided a student dormitory at the University of Tehran. Deaths, casualties and hundreds of arrests resulted. The leaders of the reform movement responded by simply urging their followers to remain calm. In 2001 the Revolutionary Court banned a number of key reformist groups from operating, including the Freedom Movement of Iran and the Nationalist-Religious Coalition. Both bodies were declared illegal and some of their members were detained, arrested and issued with harsh sentences. President Khatami did not intervene with the Supreme Leader’s orders. The policy of active tranquillity—refusing to mobilise in the face of repression—emphasised that reformists should pursue their demands only to the extent that they were able to avoid confrontation with conservatives, with a view towards building a consortium of trust.23

It was inevitable that the reform movement’s attempt at revitalising the principle of popular sovereignty, embedded in the constitution, would question the scope and role of Vali Faqih. Yet that question was categorically avoided by the reformist leadership as they worked on their inside track for change. The Khatami leadership was unwilling to review and revise the strategy, causing disillusionment among the popular support-base of reform, which proved catastrophic for the political direction of Iran in the subsequent decade. By the early 2000s there was widespread despair in the reformist camp about the absence of progress and the seemingly impenetrable wall of authoritarianism. Intellectuals, journalists and even some strategists within the reform movement began to question the model of political negotiation coupled with active tranquillity. They criticised Khatami and his team for focusing too much on political elites and institutions at the expense of the grassroots base of the reform movement. According to this critique, the reform movement’s very existence was due to its capacity for popular mobilisation, and the only way to continue its success was to create pressure from below.24 One reformist newspaper said: ‘The biggest weakness of the reform movement is that despite all their claims, they do not believe in people power. The ultimate solution is not … insider methods, or any kind of action “at the top”. The solution is to use people power more effectively.’25

Khatami’s approach led to a significant rupture between political reformists and the student movement that had galvanised around the message of reform. One student newspaper declared: ‘Struggling to reform an un-reformable system is futile. In an inflexible power structure … that has left no hope of submitting to the will of the people, how can one talk about political action with the framework of reformism?’26 Advocates of reform in the student movement went on to reject participating in government institutions, arguing that structural constraints would prevent them from being effective in their positions. This shift in perception led many student leaders to move away from the original goal of promoting the rule of law by working within the existing system, towards a secular model that would free the state from the grasp of the clerical class.

In his ‘letter for the future’ addressed to Iranian youth, Khatami provided cause for optimism. While he conceded that ‘we do not pretend that our attempt to defend the rights of the people have succeeded in every domain’, he also suggested that there ‘have been changes of such an extent in social, cultural, and political relations that it is impossible to return to the period of before the reforms’.27 But this assessment was far from reality. Jahangir Amuzegar argues that the reform movement ‘failed to install solid permanent institutions capable of preventing a leap backward. Iranian society after eight years of Khatami tenure was more than ever polarized, alienated, and cynical’.28 Following the reform years the general populace became disillusioned and checked out of participating in the political process. More radical voices from within the student movement claimed that elections within the country were a smokescreen for authoritarianism, arguing that boycotts were the only way to delegitimise the regime and promote ‘society-centered’ change.29 Reformist politicians dismissed this criticism and maintained that boycotting elections would only benefit the conservatives, who, by this stage, were rallying around the firebrand Mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it was too late to convince a tired populace to re-engage with the system after two terms of inhibited reforms under Khatami’s presidency. After record lows in voter turnout in 2005, hardliners gained control of all houses of government, ratcheting up political repression and intolerance.

Lessons Learned

Lessons can be gleaned from Iran’s turn-of-the-century experiment with reform . These may contribute to grounding future reform efforts within a considered theory of change. There is a great need for meaningful relationship-building between the reformist political class and the grassroots support-base for reform. Agents of human rights in Iran are presented with a major conundrum: should they work within the existing system, or should they provide alternatives? By engaging in the policies of political negotiation coupled with active tranquillity, Khatami’s administration put all its efforts towards taking the inside track to change. But complex problems require complex solutions. Wouter Vandenhole et al. have shown that top-down and bottom-up entry points to change are not mutually exclusive; cooperation and confrontation are not necessary opponents.30 The promotion and protection of human rights requires structural change at the top as well as sociocultural change at the base. But over time, Khatami’s inside-track approach isolated his popular base. The Khatami leadership treated its popular support base as a silent backdrop for the reform agenda that was pursued in the halls of power, depriving the reform movement of its greatest asset. Almost a decade later, Ziba Kalam, professor of political science at Tehran University, reflected: ‘The big lesson we got from [Khatami’s presidency] was that … we should see the people and take them seriously and make a plan for reform that includes them. We did not accept the reality [of their disappointment] and it resulted in the 2009 [Green Movement] uprising.’31

The requisite for relationship-building works in both directions: activists at the grassroots level must also invest some degree of trust in more progressive political figures. Whereas some members of the student movement encouraged the 2005 boycott of elections as a protest against the system, others took a more moderate stance, arguing that every effort should be made to keep the space open for reform within the system. They insisted that civil society activists needed allies within government to counteract the hardliners.32 In this sense, Ramin Jahanbegloo offers an important clue. He suggests that civil society activists seek cooperation with those political figures located in the ‘grey zone’ of Iran’s political panorama: ‘The Islamic revolutionary elite … control all of Iran’s power structure; yet, they do not have a monopoly of power over the practice of politics in Iran. In fact, there are numerous political groups and personalities that are located in the grey zone between the regime and civil society.’33

Bottom-Up/Outside Track Approach: The One Million Signatures Campaign (2006–?)

If political reformers exemplify a ‘top-down’ approach to change, the Iranian women’s movement offers an apt case study on the pursuit of change from the ‘bottom-up’. The women’s movement in Iran is an amorphous and nebulous entity. It includes activists in the classical sense (women who have devoted their lives, and livelihoods, to protest and push back); NGOs (focusing on issue-based areas such as violence against women); and a whole range of individuals working to promote and protect women’s rights in their respective spheres of influence (lawyers, publishers, journalists, artists and others).

The One Million Signatures Campaign is arguably the most well-known and largest initiative to end gender discrimination in Iran. The campaign commenced in 2006 with the aim of collecting one million signatures in support of aligning Iran’s legal code with international standards on non-discrimination against women. The initiative generated a buzz among activists and in its early years, the campaign was filled with energy. But as time went on, the movement lost momentum. By 2009 the campaign was effectively defunct. The number of signatures collected by activists has never been disclosed. Although the campaign faced tremendous constraints that undoubtedly contributed to its demise, it also suffered from a lack of strategic direction and internal decision-making necessary to overcome the challenges it faced. A consideration of the campaign’s objectives, targets, strategies, constraints, roles, relationships and context is instructive in terms of where the women’s movement might be heading and how it might reconstitute its efforts for greater impact in the future.

Objectives, Targets and Strategies

The overarching goal and primary target of the One Million Signatures Campaign was clearly spelled out in its petition statement: ‘The Iranian government is a signatory to several international human rights conventions, and accordingly is required to bring its legal code in line with international standards. The most important international human rights standard calls for elimination of discrimination of all forms, including that based on sex.’34 To bring the government towards a position of enacting legislative change for women, the strategy was two-fold. First, campaigners would engage in grassroots advocacy around women’s human rights and gather signatures petitioning for reform of discriminatory laws. Second, in the spirit of ijtihad, a team of lawyers within the campaign would draft a bill of proposed legal reforms, and present both the bill and signed petition statement to parliament in a lobbying effort to motivate and initiate the long process of law reform.

At first read there might seem to be something of a mismatch between the target of the campaign (the government) and the phase one strategy (public awareness-raising). But, in the words of Campaign co-founder Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani , the idea of the public awareness-raising phase was to ‘build a following powerful enough to make lawmakers take notice and engage in discussions on law reform with representatives of the women’s movement’.35 The campaign’s information pamphlet, The Effect of Laws on Women’s Lives, communicated in lay terms the discriminatory aspects of the Iranian legal code and its impact on the lives of everyday women. Activists used the pamphlet as a public education tool and to gather signatures in streets, cafes, parks, at sports events and on public transport. In this way, the campaign was typical of grassroots approaches to change that attempt to influence policy-makers through the ‘outside track’ and engage in activism in popular unsanctioned spaces, as opposed to invited and formal spaces of governance.

At the same time, the women’s movement could not afford to set up a confrontational dynamic with the very people vested with the ultimate power to make the legal changes desired. For this reason activists made concerted efforts to stress that the aims of the campaign were ‘in no way in contradiction to Islam’, but relied on the ‘important role … [of] religious scholars to facilitate its progress’.36 They insisted on their preference ‘to work within the existing system to create change’.37 The question of whether to work within the confines of Iran’s theocracy to progress women’s demands, or to insist on the separation of religion and state, is an issue that was debated at length in the Iranian women’s movement throughout the late 1990s and 2000s.38 Submitting to the discourse of Islamic jurisprudence and employing ijithad to interpret Islam’s holy sources as a basis for legal reform was a crucial component of the One Million Signatures Campaign. If the campaign were at any point branded ‘un-Islamic’ or ‘un-Iranian’ (common terms waged against voices of dissent in Iran), it would have little hope of engaging effectively with dominant political figures in order to advance its agenda through the halls of power.

Context and Constraints

Several factors led the campaign to an impasse. Some of those were external factors outside activists’ control. Although the women’s movement had made repeated efforts to stress that their activities were not politically motivated, this is not the same as being able to claim that the campaign was altogether apolitical. Any attempt to depoliticise advocacy for gender equality in Iran is highly problematic because women’s deference to men is a key organising principle of the Islamic Republic’s form of political Islam; therefore, in calling for an end to all discriminatory laws against women, the women’s movement necessarily pitched itself against the dominant conservative political establishment. Iran’s clerical elite has a long track record of refusing to recognise alternative interpretations of Islamic laws if those perspectives run counter to their own conservative views, thereby making reform-oriented ijtihad a risky proposition. Ebadi spoke eloquently of this conundrum in her memoir, where she said that although ijtihad creates space for flexibility and adaptability within Islam, when invoked to justify reform in a theocratic system, the ‘interpretation’ of Islam that will always prevail is that of the most politically powerful.39

Hardliners reacted negatively to the campaign and employed a variety of tactics to inhibit its progress. The Change for Equality website was consistently blocked from user-access, and news sources throughout the country were instructed not to publish a single item on the campaign. Government authorities repeatedly refused permits that would allow women to hold meetings and conferences in public venues, forcing them to host meetings in private homes. In the first eighteen months alone, over fifty women were arrested for involvement in the campaign.40 The assault on activists intensified following the mass unrest over the disputed presidential elections in 2009. Since that time many women identified as frontrunners of the campaign were imprisoned (including lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and activist Bahareh Hedayat) or forced into voluntary exile (including Shirin Ebadi and activists Sussan Tahmasebi and Parvin Ardalan). According to campaign co-founder Jelveh Javaheri, who remains in Iran, the women’s movement continued with One Million Signatures campaign activities after 2009, but the looming threat of being apprehended forced them to work in smaller and smaller groups, and actively avoid attracting further public attention to their activities.41

Leadership and Sequencing Problems

Without playing down the heavy toll placed on the campaign by state-sanctioned repression, it would be remiss to ignore that the campaign also suffered from internal problems around strategic direction, leadership and decision-making. While the latter argument is virtually absent in the existing literature on the topic, it is clear that cracks emerged rather quickly in the campaign’s methodology. The original timeframe anticipated for grassroots awareness-raising was one to two years following the launch in August 2006, after which time the women’s movement aimed to move the campaign into its second phase of engaging with the political class and proposing law reforms to parliament. However, when the number of signatures collected was much lower than expected by February 2008 (six months before the original deadline), women within the campaign began to voice concern. Tahmasebi issued a statement on the Change for Equality website that suggested the campaign was not on track: ‘The process of signature collection has been slower than expected, because changing patriarchal cultures takes time and because activists have faced pressure and limitations from security forces … We will announce the number of signatures in the future and once petitions from around the country can be collected.’42

Tensions surfaced over how soon and to what extent campaigners should engage in lobbying efforts with politicians and others in positions of power.43 The process of grassroots awareness-raising proved to be an all-consuming task, and for many activists, constituted the primary focus of their involvement in the campaign. Activist Sara Loghmani, for example, argued that ‘what we have in mind, more than anything else, is to make people sensitive to gender issues … this is the biggest and most important step … whether legislators review the laws or not’.44 But this position was not in step with the declared goal of the campaign, and contrasted with the views of activists such as Bahareh Hedayat and Ahmadi Khorasani, both of whom argued that although grassroots awareness-raising was a crucial aspect of the campaign, signature collection was a method for attracting political support for law reform, not the campaign’s ultimate goal. Hedayet openly expressed her concern that campaigning on the streets alone would not be enough to pressure the government into recognising women’s demands.45 Khorasani also questioned whether or not the ‘bottom-up approach to change’ in Iran would have ‘staying power’, concluding that ‘in order to gain equal rights for women, the Campaign will have to find ways to spread its message of equality and fair treatment among the political class, and that means engaging [political] parties’.46

Despite this analysis, the focus on signature collection at the grassroots level was maintained. In 2009 Khorasani revised the projections for signature collection to 2011. She openly described a feeling of fear within the women’s movement over the prospects of failing to progress the campaign. She worried that ‘if we take too long, our activists will lose heart and we will fall short of our goal, at considerable hazard to our … method’s credibility’.47 These apprehensions were vindicated in subsequent years. The 2011 forecast came and went without event, and the campaign entered a state of deadlock. A planned, strategic dialogue between activists and their primary targets—legislators—never took place. This was a case of overdone sequencing. According to one campaign activist, to this day members of the women’s movement still cannot agree on whether or not to progress what the campaign started by disclosing to the public, and to the government, the number of signatures collected.48

Lessons Learned

Change is rarely linear or unidirectional . The One Million Signatures Campaign was a good example of human rights activism grounded in the recognition that the practical realisation of equal rights for men and women depends on both structural change and the implementation of laws, as well as sociocultural, behavioural and attitudinal change. Yet the campaign suffered from overdone sequencing regarding its approach to progress in those two arenas. The campaign strategy was organised around a causal chain theory: in essence, the hope was that action x—gathering one million signatures in support of changing discriminatory laws—would lead to outcome y—recognition of their demands by the political class and meaningful engagement to commence the process of law reform. But there was a lack of clear direction within the women’s movement over when and how to move beyond grassroots action to engage with politicians and lobby upwards for legislative change. It is arguable that the campaign’s aim to secure the mammoth number of no less than one million signatures, while admirable, was too ambitious a goal. Although the women’s movement wanted to build a support base so large that the government would be hard pressed to deny its position, this meant that the signature-collection phase of the campaign became an arduously long and drawn out process.

An alternative approach would have been to work along multiple causal chains: that is, to deploy grassroots awareness-raising (signature collection) simultaneous to strategic engagement with reformist politicians . The campaign leadership might also have set a finite timeline for signature collection and end the process according to the timeline using however many signatures they had, rather than aiming to collect one million signatures over an open-ended period of time. This would have afforded activists greater clarity over when and how they would launch phase two of the campaign, and, possibly, more confidence around announcing to the public and to the government the number of signatures collected. The well-regarded advocacy organisation, which specialises in gathering signatures for petitions , suggests that the most successful petitions share some common elements, including: a compelling and achievable goal that asks for something very specific that a decision-maker(s) has the power to influence or change and a well-planned, in-person delivery of the petition and its undersigned to the decision-maker(s) being addressed. The One Million Signatures Campaign did not exhibit either of those characteristics.

None of this is to dismiss the qualitative impact of the women’s movement in grassroots awareness-raising around women’s rights, which has been demonstrated and discussed at length in several other works.49 Loghmani held the view that the most important aspect of the campaign was to make people sensitive to gender issues regardless of whether or not legislators reviewed the laws. This reflects a common approach in bottom-up/outside track strategies for change, which often place just as much or more emphasis on means (ways of working) as they do on ends, especially preconceived outcomes such as legislative change. And yet ‘it is not quantifiable that this approach will lead to a bottom-up revolution in human rights understandings and practices’.50 The question of roles and relationships between Iran’s civil society and reformist politicians remains outstanding. As Gready and Vandenhole have argued: ‘Civil society cannot substitute for the state … results are not likely to be sustainable if the state is not capable of taking over and committing resources towards sustaining the results obtained … As the state is the main duty-bearer, capacity needs to be strengthened, particularly when it comes to enforcement and implementation.’51


This chapter has examined two agents of change in Iran: the political reform movement, taking a top-down and inside-track approach; and the women’s movement, taking a bottom-up and outside-track approach. It is easy to attribute the relative failure of both initiatives to reach their ultimate objectives to the very real constraints imposed by the state: an inflexible, conservative leadership with extensive powers that include legislative veto, coupled with the willingness to employ intimidation and oppression against those who speak out for human rights. Such an analysis is partly warranted, but it does not tell the entire story. The breakdowns of both the reform movement and the women’s campaign were also the result of internal strategic errors and the absence of concrete theories of change.

The political reform movement on the one hand, and the One Million Signatures Campaign on the other, may appear at the outset to be normatively distinct. Yet the above analysis of the factors underpinning potential development of a theory of change (objectives, targets, strategies, constraints , roles, relationships and context) suggests that the two initiatives had a number of elements in common. Both were ultimately seeking legislative reform around discriminatory laws and to reduce state interference in citizens’ lives. Both worked around an assumption, belief, or hope that those with greater decision-making powers could be persuaded to temper conservative views if sufficiently pressured by their constituents and influenced by more liberal values and interests derived from the Islamic framework. This is an important point. Although the women’s movement located their activities in popular public spaces, and the reform movement within formal corridors of power, both operated within the legal boundaries of the state and its institutions. Both stressed compatibility of their goals with Islam and framed their work as non-threatening to those in power. Both saw the potential power in the people and worked to enhance institutions of civil society (the reform movement) and empower ordinary people with knowledge (the women’s movement).

Where the two initiatives departed was on sequencing and the relative priority placed on pursuing change in invited versus popular spaces of governance. This raises a question that goes to the heart of a theory of change: namely, what is the most appropriate direction of change? Political reformists and women’s activists had different answers to this difficult but fundamental question. Over time, the reform movement’s preference for insider political negotiation, coupled with active tranquillity, distanced its popular support base. On the other hand, the women’s movement’s focus on grassroots awareness-raising over an indeterminate period meant that they never progressed systematically towards establishing meaningful dialogue with decision-makers in government.

These observations warrant a number of important lessons for human rights work in Iran, which are canvassed in the final chapter in this volume. In Chap.  10, we examine intersecting issues in the key factors underpinning a theory of change (objectives, targets, strategies, constraints, roles, relationships and operational context) for each case study presented in this volume. The findings suggest that there are significant problems with both top-down/inside-track and bottom-up/outside track approaches to human rights in Iran, and that multiple and complex methods may represent the best way forward. This idea, of course, raises difficult questions about context, prioritisation, sequencing, roles and the relationships between different actors—all of which impact upon the ways that any given driver of change can access public space and resources to achieve influence, especially in highly restrictive operating environments.52 In tackling these complex problems, this volume is a novel contribution to thinking more strategically about human rights in Iran, and, indeed, towards developing a better understanding of a country that is a major player in contemporary international relations, yet is so often misrepresented in popular discourse.


  1. 1.

    International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966); International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966); Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990); Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006).

  2. 2.

    Shirin Ebadi, interview with Rebecca Barlow, 7 July 2007.

  3. 3.

    See the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) series of reports of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran (Geneva: UNHRC, 2012–2017), accessed 6 November 2017,

  4. 4.

    Paul Gready and Wouter Vandenhole, ‘What Are We Trying to Change? Theories of Change in Development and Human Rights’, in Human Rights and Development in the New Millennium, ed. Paul Gready and Wouter Vandenhole (Oxon: Routledge, 2014), 1.

  5. 5.

    Wouter Vandenhole, Corinne Lennox, Paul Gready and Hugo Stokke, ‘Some Cross Cutting Issues and Their Policy Implications’, in Human Rights and Development in the New Millennium, ed. Gready and Vandenhole, 273.

  6. 6.

    Gready and Vandenhole, ‘What Are We Trying to Change?’, 3.

  7. 7.

    Rosalind Eyben, Thalia Kiddler, Jo Rowlands and Audrey Bronstein, ‘Thinking About Change for Development Practice: A Case Study from Oxfam UK’, Development in Practice 18, no. 2 (2008): 201–12.

  8. 8.

    See Ali Ansari, Iran, Islam and Democracy: The Politics of Managing Change (London: Chatham House, 2006); Said Amir Arjomand, After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Asef Bayat, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).

  9. 9.

    Maysam Behravesh, ‘Iran’s Reform Movement: The Enduring Relevance of an Alternative Discourse’, Digest of Middle East Studies 23, no. 2 (2014): 274–5.

  10. 10.

    Mohammad Ali Kadivar, ‘Alliances and Perception Profiles in the Iranian Reform Movement, 1997 to 2005’, American Sociological Review 76, no. 8 (2013): 1074.

  11. 11.

    Iran [newspaper], cited in ibid.

  12. 12.

    Hayat-e No [newspaper], cited in ibid.

  13. 13.

    Neshat [newspaper], cited in ibid.

  14. 14.

    Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, ‘The Pluralistic Momentum in Iran and the Future of the Reform Movement’, Third World Quarterly 27, no. 4 (2006): 666.

  15. 15.

    Kadivar, ‘Alliances and Perception Profiles in the Iranian Reform Movement’, 1074.

  16. 16.


  17. 17.

    Behravesh, ‘Iran’s Reform Movement’, 266.

  18. 18.

    Arjomand, After Khomeini, 94.

  19. 19.


  20. 20.

    ‘Iran’s Guardian Council Vetoes Power Challenge’, ABC News, 26 January 2004,

  21. 21.

    Ali Akbar Dareini, ‘Iranian Guardian Council Vetoes Key Bill’, Intelligencer, 8 May 2003,

  22. 22.

    Arjomand, After Khomeini, 93.

  23. 23.

    Kadivar, ‘Alliances and Perception Profiles in the Iranian Reform Movement’, 1075.

  24. 24.

    Ibid., 1076.

  25. 25.

    Seda-ye Edalat [newspaper], cited in ibid.

  26. 26.

    Sharq [newspaper], cited in ibid., 1077.

  27. 27.

    ‘Khatami Justifies Years in Office’, BBC News, 3 May 2004,

  28. 28.

    Jahangir Amuzegar, ‘Khatami’s Legacy: Dashed Hopes’, Middle East Journal 60, no. 1 (2006): 74.

  29. 29.

    Kadivar, ‘Alliances and Perception Profiles in the Iranian Reform Movement’, 1079.

  30. 30.

    Vandenhole, Lennox, Gready and Stokke, ‘Some Cross Cutting Issues and Their Policy Implications’, 275.

  31. 31.

    ‘Ziba Kalam: Anyone Could Be Elected Instead of Khatami, Hashemi and Reformists Support Ghalibaf’, Entekhab, 19 September 2012,می-رای-بود-هم-تیرآهن-خاتمی-جای-به-اگر-زیباکلام-.

  32. 32.

    Kadivar, ‘Alliances and Perception Profiles in the Iranian Reform Movement’, 1079.

  33. 33.

    Ramin Jahanbegloo, ‘Iran and the Democratic Struggle in the Middle East’, Middle East Law and Governance 3, nos. 1/2 (2011): 131.

  34. 34.

    ‘Launching of the One Million Signatures Campaign Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws’, Change for Equality, 27 August 2006,

  35. 35.

    Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story (Bethesda: Women’s Learning Partnership, 2009), 60.

  36. 36.

    Sussan Tahmasebi, ‘One Million Signatures: Answers to Your Most Frequently Asked Questions’, Change for Equality, 24 February 2008,

  37. 37.

    Tahmasebi, ‘One Million Signatures’.

  38. 38.

    See Valentine Moghadam, ‘Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents’, Signs 27, no. 4 (2002): 1135–71; Rebecca Barlow and Shahram Akbarzadeh, ‘Prospects for Feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran’, Human Rights Quarterly 30, no. 1 (2008): 21–40.

  39. 39.

    Shirin Ebadi, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope (New York: Random House, 2006), 191–2.

  40. 40.

    ‘Why They Left: Stories of Iranian Activists in Exile’, Human Rights Watch, 13 December 2012,

  41. 41.

    Leila Alikarami, Women and Equality in Iran: Law, Society, and Activism (London: I. B. Tauris, forthcoming, 2018).

  42. 42.

    Tahmasebi, ‘One Million Signatures’.

  43. 43.

    Khorasani, Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality, 56.

  44. 44.

    Sasan Ghahreman, ‘The Campaign for One Million Signatures: A Grassroots Effort (An Interview with Sara Loghmani)’, Change for Equality, November 2006,

  45. 45.

    Bahareh Hedayat, ‘Promotion of Equal Rights Discourse among Political Groups’, Change for Equality, 29 July 2007,

  46. 46.

    Khorasani, Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality, 70.

  47. 47.

    Ibid., 56–7.

  48. 48.

    Campaign activist, personal communication with Rebecca Barlow, 17 November 2015. (Name omitted to protect the identity of the individual).

  49. 49.

    See Khorasani, Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality; Alikarami, Women and Equality in Iran; Rebecca Barlow, Universal Women’s Human Rights and the Muslim Question: Iran’s One Million Signatures Campaign (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2012).

  50. 50.

    Gready and Vandenhole, ‘What Are We Trying to Change?’, 14–15.

  51. 51.

    Vandenhole, Lennox, Gready and Stokke, ‘Some Cross Cutting Issues and Their Policy Implications’, 293.

  52. 52.

    Ibid., 275.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin UniversityBurwoodAustralia

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