In January of 1936, Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty and father of the last Shah of Iran, issued a royal decree banning women from wearing chadors and headscarves in public. Police were instructed to tear off the chador of any woman wearing one. My grandmother didn’t leave her house for the next three years.

The law was abandoned by the Shah’s son (while he promoted modernism in other ways), and the result was that, even without its enforcement, Iranian women at the time of Reza Shah went from being mostly housewives, covered in public, to mostly uncovered, educated, and working in the time of his son.

My mother, the daughter of a theologian and professor who taught classes in his house rather than at the newly created University of Tehran when Reza Shah also declared that men couldn’t wear the turban in public, graduated from that university in those years, uncovered, and taught high school, uncovered, until she married and had children.

In the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the obverse of Reza Shah’s decree was enshrined into law: modest dress, including the hijab, became mandatory for women venturing out in public. And in August of this year, the hard-line president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, who was muscled into his position by the leadership in 2021, unchallenged by moderates who were disqualified in running for office, issued a decree enforcing Iran’s hijab-and-chastity law.

Almost a century apart, two different generations of Iranian women have watched helplessly as men have decided how they must comport themselves.

And so it was that in early September in Tehran, a young woman by the name of Mahsa Amini, wearing an Islamic Republic–appropriate headscarf and long overcoat, was pulled into a van of the Gasht-e Ershad—the “morality patrol”—and taken to a “re-education center” on Vozara Street, where hours later she collapsed and was taken to the hospital in a coma. She died on September 16.

Almost a century apart, two different generations of Iranian women have watched helplessly as men have decided how they must comport themselves.

Almost no one, save for government officials and a handful of their followers, believes that she wasn’t physically abused before she fell into a coma, despite a video broadcast on state television purporting to show her in fine form prior to collapsing onto the floor in the detention center.

As one friend in Tehran speculated, “There’s no doubt they slammed her head against the van’s walls or punched her in the head many times if she complained, and a brain hemorrhage resulted that wouldn’t immediately be obvious.”

Since then, protests have erupted all over the country: protests against the hijab, against the morality police, against the government, against the Supreme Leader, and against the very nature of the Islamic Republic itself. These protests are organic, homegrown, and are driven by women; they are leaderless yet fearless.

For women, the death of Mahsa Amini was the catalyst that has led them to say, “Enough.” For men, and for all those suffering under illiberal, suffocating social prohibitions, lack of political freedoms, and the final end of any hope of a representative government—with a president no longer chosen by them but by the leaders themselves—this is the moment when the people’s rage boils over.

Ever since the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami, which lasted from the late 90s to the mid-aughts, women have sartorially expressed themselves with increasing abandon, to the point that, in many cafés and upscale gathering places, the hijab has been either the flimsiest of fabrics casually draped over the head, with much of the hair showing, or, in the case of some young women, abandoned altogether (albeit not so on the street).

The last time I was in Iran on a reporting trip, almost a decade ago, and before I was deemed persona non grata by the authorities, the morality patrols were an annoyance that seemed to increase or decrease in frequency depending on the mood of the hard-line clerics and the judiciary, but they were not considered deadly.

For women, the death of Mahsa Amini was the catalyst that has led them to say, “Enough.”

Some Iranian women even considered other discriminatory laws (such as inheritance and divorce laws) to be more important to fight against than the law over the hijab.

But while demonstrations against mandatory veiling have been going on for years, and there have been documented instances of the morality patrols’ brutality, until now nothing has compared with the photos of Mahsa lying bruised and comatose in a hospital bed.

All these years, women have been clearly expressing, both silently and vocally, their feelings about being forced to comply with a dress code in public. The leadership and today’s president, a cleric who spent his life in seminaries and the judiciary, have been unable to read the room because they have never been in the room. To not only not pay attention but instead double down on the enforcement of a law that some clerics don’t even believe is Islamic stems from the current government’s myopic view of society: a view that is steeped in a pre-1979 ideal of an Islamic utopia—what the members were raised to believe in and what they cannot, because of the insularity of their lives, see beyond. To them, reform and, by extension, reformists are anathema.

Mahsa Amini’s treatment and subsequent death provided the spark that ignited the passions and highlighted the grievances we see today in Iran. Young people have gone from dancing in the streets in 2015, celebrating the signing of the J.C.P.O.A. (the Iran nuclear deal, which the previous government concluded), to protesting in the streets against a regime that cannot seem to bring itself to finalize a return to that deal, which would allow for the lifting of sanctions that have stifled the economy and led to double-digit inflation.

And, ultimately, they are defying a regime that is giving them no hope for their future. A friend in Tehran recently told me that the youth have lost all hope and will emigrate if given half the chance. “They’re emigrating to Moldova!,” he said, not to disparage that country but to indicate that they’re so desperate for a decent life that they’ll go anywhere that will have them.

It’s impossible to say how things will play out in Iran. Predicting Iranian politics, or even the demise of the regime, is and has always been a fool’s errand: just ask the C.I.A. What is certain, though, is that women will no longer widely accept that the Gasht-e Ershad can pull them over and “educate” them.

It’s hard, however, to imagine the hijab being enforced as it once was, not unless the enforcer wants to invite violence upon him- or herself. It is ironic, also, that the women who were encouraged but not forced to modernize by the last Shah are many of the same women who helped overthrow the Shah 35 years later.

The current leadership of the Islamic Republic early on learned a few lessons from the last ruler of the Peacock Throne, whom they chased into exile. Most importantly, the Shah, by publicly apologizing for his regime’s shortcomings in the face of protests against his rule in the winter of 1978, only brought on a bigger, braying mob, hungry for blood.

So it is unlikely the regime will ever admit a mistake, apologize, or give much ground to protesters. It hasn’t yet, in all the protests we’ve witnessed since its inception. But today the government in Tehran has a bigger issue to contend with than just the hijab. It can double down, as it has in the past, and it has the shock troops to help it do so. But it has no plan to deal with the deep malaise in its society, and that is what just might be its undoing.

To hear Hooman Majd reveal more about his story, listen to him on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast

The grandson of an ayatollah, Hooman Majd is an Iranian-born American journalist, author, and political commentator who writes on Iranian affairs. He is the author of three books: The Ayatollah Begs to Differ,The Ayatollahs’ Democracy, and The Ministry of Guidance Invites You Not to Stay