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(New York) - The Iranian authorities should respect protesters' right to assemble peacefully and express their demands for change, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 8, 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, thousands of men and women are expected to participate in demonstrations in Tehran and other major Iranian cities to demand much needed democratic reforms, including full legal equality for women.

Iranian women today face many significant challenges. They are subject to a range of legal discrimination both in law and government policies. They are denied equal rights in marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance. Divorced women only retain custody over their children only until they are seven years old, when custodianship is automatically transferred to the father. A woman may forfeit her custodial rights if she remarries, while this is not true for men who remarry. Many other laws undervalue and restrict the role of women in public life, including a provision declaring the testimony of a woman in court as equal to half that of man's.

"Despite threats against them, Iranian feminists and activists are still fighting for equality," said Nadya Khalife, women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Iranian women are demanding their rights to gender equality and democratic reforms. The government should heed these calls and refrain from using violence against those calling for change."

Over the past years, Iranian women and civil society activists have undertaken numerous campaigns to help repeal these discriminatory laws, including the One Million Signatures Campaign, launched in 2006, which seeks to collect signatures to reform discriminatory provisions against women. In response, security forces and judiciary officials routinely have subjected female activists to threats, harassment, interrogations, and imprisonment simply for demanding equal rights with. Human Rights Watch reaffirmed its call for full gender equality in Iran and again called on the Iranian government to release women activists who are currently being arbitrarily detained.

In a recent statement issued in support of the planned march, Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi said: "Thirty-two years ago, on March 8, International Women's Day, a statement broadcast on [Iranian] national television stripped women employed by the government of one of their most basic rights - the freedom to choose their own dress ... On [March 8, 2011], shoulder to shoulder with our brothers, we will come to the streets to support the popular and broad democratic demands, because achieving ‘equal rights' is possible only if voiced in a democratic system."

Human Rights Watch also urged the Iranian government to immediately release opposition figures Zahra Rahnavard and Fatemeh Karroubi, and their husbands Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Authorities have detained Rahnavard, Fatemeh Karroubi and their husbands, without charge, since at least February 24 when they were transferred to an unknown location. Prior to that security forces had kept the opposition activists and their husbands under house arrest.

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