New York - Women's rights campaigners are hoping for a strong turnout to public rallies set to be staged across the Islamic Republic of Iran next Tuesday, despite a government crackdown on opposition demonstrators in recent weeks.
The rallies, which will officially mark International Women's Day on Mar. 8, are being organised following a call to action by well-known Iranian activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi.
Ebadi, director of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre, is looking to build on the current popular unrest in the Arab world, North American-based human rights advocates say.
However, in a statement released this week Ebadi, who is currently exiled in the U.K., was careful to describe the planned demonstrations as the "beginning of a civil rights movement" rather than "a political demand".
"On this day, 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," she said.
"But, we must not allow anyone to disregard our demands under the auspices of preventing crisis or avoiding divisiveness."
Ebadi said protesters would call on Iran's hardline theocratic government, led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to make key constitutional reforms to deliver long overdue gender equality to the country's estimated 36 million women.
"For years women's demands for justice have been silenced under a variety of pretexts, on occasion with the excuse of misuse by those opposing the Revolution, other times blaming the war with Iraq, or for the preservation of national security or with the excuse of waging war against world arrogance," she said.
In Iran, male supremacy is inscribed into the legal code, with females granted fewer rights to divorce, custody of children, insurance and court privileges.
And despite women maintaining high levels of university education, they continue to experience disproportionate unemployment, discrimination and under-representation in the labour market.
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), told IPS the International Women's Day protests would highlight these injustices.
"Iranian women are calling for reform in the legal system which treats them as second class citizens," Ghaemi said.
"The life and body of a women is literally counted as half of a man. If I'm in a car accident with a female companion and suffered an injury, the male person would receive twice the financial compensation under Iranian law. The women also has no rights to divorce, the law literally appoints the husband as the boss of the family and the woman has to take orders from him," he added.
"With the political turmoil going on in the region, women are using the occasion of Mar. 8 to insist that conditions of gender equality should not be overlooked or there will be a regression," he said.
Ahmadinejad's government has been quick to silence protestors in Iran who have sought to ride the wave of discontent spreading across northern Africa and the Middle East in recent months.
Demonstrations in February were met with violent repression by security forces, resulting in at least three deaths.
And this week it was reported that four of the country's most prominent opposition campaigners - Zahra Rahnavard, Fatemeh Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi - had disappeared.
According to ICHRI, the group had been subjected to an illegal "house arrest", with no arrest warrant, summons or charge since before Feb. 14, when they called for public demonstrations in solidarity with pro-democracy activists in Egypt and Tunisia.
However, sources in Iran say the four political dissidents have now been taken to a secret detention centre, known as a "safe house", outside the jurisdiction of the courts and controlled by Revolutionary Guards.
Ghaemi said despite the government moving to neutralise disquiet, ICHRI hoped for a significant turnout to protests on Tuesday.
"What we're seeing is a huge security presence of riot police and security forces who are preventing people from coming out, there is a zero tolerance for assembly right now, but regardless people are trying to come out and have their voices heard," he told IPS.
"It's impossible to know numbers but there is the potential for people to come out," Ghaemi noted.
Ebadi also acknowledged the danger in calling for reform, but encouraged Iran's "brave women" to fight inequalities to create a better world for themselves and their children.
"Eventually… when someday we celebrate the liberty of humans and not just that of men, the history that our children will write will indeed be different," she said in a statement this week.
"Iranian women are not starved for political power nor are they demanding decadence. They are simply weary of enduring more cruelty and disparagement. They are in search of justice and equality."