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Almost all its women are covered from head to toe. Mullahs saunter by in flowing brown robes. The seminaries are packed with earnest young students, steeped in the values of the Islamic Revolution. Moreover, the city is home to many of the baseej militiamen who have beaten and killed demonstrators in Tehran, km miles to the north.
No demonstrations have taken place in Qom or nearby villages since the disputed presidential election of June 12th. Since the poll, security has tightened. Foreigners are routinely held for questioning. Locals say there are informers round every corner. Unlicensed television satellite dishes have been confiscated. Codes banning unmarried couples from consorting in public are rigorously upheld.
Yet even here, you meet people who sympathise with the clutch of Qom's senior clergy who have spoken out against the ruling establishment. The discontent is aired quietly, behind closed doors. Under a veneer of calm and unity, you detect splits: between the generations; between the pious and the more secular; between those who listen or have access to the Western media and those who rely on state news.
Qom has been infiltrated by the same forces of modernisation that have transformed other big cities. In the shadow of Qom's gold-domed Holy Shrine, second in importance in Iran only to the one in Meshed, shops hawk garish women's clothes; in the past, it was illegal to sell even T-shirts. Drugs and alcohol can be found easily if you know where to look. Qom even has its own well-known red-light district, where pious mullahs can get licences to be married just for a few hours or a day to a pretty woman in a custom that is close to abetting prostitution.
Still, many young Qomsters feel suffocated—and head north to breathe more freely and to look for work in Tehran. The strength is sapped out of any fledgling open opposition. In any case, liberalism in Qom is relative. Most supporters of Mir Hosein Mousavi, the thwarted presidential contender, still express respect for the controversial incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, because the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has thrown his weight behind him.