GENEVA -- The failure by governments across the Islamic world to respect women's rights has hampered steps toward political change, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi said Monday as the United Nations observed International Women's Day.
Ebadi, who last year became the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, said women have raised their profile on the international stage over the past decade, but more needs to be done.
"Many people use Islam to justify the unequal position of women. They are wrong," the Iranian lawyer said during a visit to the International Labor Organization. "Islam is a religion which believes in the equality of all human beings."
President Bush issued a statement championing the efforts of Ebadi and a fellow Nobel laureate, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan marked the occasion with a warning that a growing number of the world's new HIV/AIDS cases are women.
Around the world, people marked International Women's Day with rallies against domestic violence and sexual harassment and demands for equal rights.
In Iraq, several hundred women demonstrated in downtown Baghdad against the country's new interim constitution, which they fear will restrict their rights by enshrining the role of Islam.
In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai noted that girls and women had begun returning to schools, colleges and the work force since the U.S.-led military campaign in late 2001 swept away the Taliban's hardline Islamic regime.
In Bangladesh, women protested against the illegal but still widely observed custom of demanding a dowry as a condition of marriage.
In Nepal, a general strike to protest abuse against women shut down schools and businesses. The action was organized by the female wing of the country's leftist rebel group.
Women staged brief marches in Zimbabwe's two main cities of Harare and Bulawayo, despite the arrest Sunday of three women for organizing the protests against food shortages and other hardships they blame on President Robert Mugabe's government.
Russian President Vladimir Putin invited successful women from various fields to his residence outside Moscow and awarded them with state medals for their achievements.
"In our country, women do not take second place to men," he said.
While some former Soviet republics have dropped Women's Day as a relic of the Communist era, it is still an official holiday in Russia, where men give flowers and gifts to female relatives, friends and colleagues.