A new breed of man -- young, self-conscious and absorbed with self-expression -- is emerging in Iran, in a trend that runs counter to the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Much to the consternation of conservative clerical leaders, these men are much given to grooming themselves, and they spend increasing amounts of time, money and energy to express their personal style.

Debates over personal grooming rage as the opposing forces of modernity and counter-modernity stretch and strain the country's social fabric. But while it's been reaching new heights of late, the politicization of men's public appearance in contemporary Iran is nothing new.

Consider the turban. For more than six decades, this headgear was debated with passion. Some men considered it an emblem of religious and scholarly distinction, while others viewed it as a symbol of religious reaction.

Different regimes outlawed or popularized the turban. Shah Reza Pahlavi banned it in the 1930s, severely punishing anyone who refused to shed it. The few men who did wear turbans needed special permits to do so.

But soon after the 1979 revolution, this headpiece became the hallmark of the new Islamic Republic of Iran. White and black turbans -- the latter reserved for male descendants of the prophet Muhammad -- were everywhere. Turbaned men populated the mosques, presidential palaces, the House of Representatives, governmental offices, television screens and universities.

Two decades later, the country's cultural landscape has changed. Turbaned men have practically vanished from the streets. Isolated in their palaces, hidden in bulletproof cars, concealed inside highly protected mansions and offices, they shun public places.

Now alcoholic beverages, drugs, Barbie dolls, satellite dishes, independent newspapers, Western pop music, illegal movies, Western clothing and cosmetics are everywhere. And Iranian men are increasingly captivated by new ideas of male fashion, style and beauty.

By resorting to practices previously reserved for women, men are using their bodies as soapboxes on which to declaim their social and political views. Among other things, their defiance signals a fierce struggle between autocracy and democracy, between governmental dictates and individual will.

While some men continue to wear the scraggly beards favored by the clerics, others express their defiance by appearing in public cleanshaven, smartly dressed and well groomed. Men's beauty salons, charging exorbitant fees, are appearing all over Iran. Brides -- and grooms -- seek beauty treatments.

More and more Iranian men wear ties, jeans and trendy clothes. They diet, exercise, color their hair and pluck their eyebrows. They apply styling gel to blow-dried hair. Some grow their hair long and wear ponytails. Others sport body piercings or tattoos.

There is also a surge in plastic surgery among men. Nose jobs are the most popular, with men flaunting their post-surgical bandages in the crowded streets of Tehran.

Iranian cinema, which was and to some extent still is subject to a strict dress code, now projects stylish actors on the silver screen. Often the male actors' physical beauty is as pivotal to the plot as that of the actresses.

Protecting Iran's imperiled manhood was one of the central themes of the Islamic revolution. The reigning clerics lamented the decline in cherished ideals of masculinity, and proceeded to accentuate the differences between the sexes, insisting on their separation.

But young, secular Iranian men have thrown their bodies into an unconventional war of civil disobedience, demanding that their views on civil rights, individual freedom and a new relationship with the West be heard.

They are making much more than just a fashion statement.

The writer, a native of Iran, is an associate professor of Persian and of women and gender studies at the University of Virginia. She recently returned from a trip to Iran.