Photographer Isabelle Eshraghi returned to her native Iran for the first time in 30 years to record the lives of women contemporaries. She talks to Nicholas Faith about her work and a life that might have been
Earlier this year, Isabelle Eshragi returned to her roots. As a three-year-old, she had been taken by her mother from Isfahan in Iran to Paris. Now 33, and an accomplished photographer, she went back to her birthplace for two months and used her unique access to Iranian women to compile a portfolio of their everyday lives. It was so intimate, so touching, so revealing of the women of Iran, that it has just won the 1997 French Critics' Prize, sponsored by Kodak.

The night before she returned to Iran, Isabelle dreamt that she was at a dinner, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, when an Iranian tried to grope her. To escape, her only solution was to put on her scarf and her big black raincoat. So when she arrived in Iran for real, "it wasn't painful for me to have to cover my face. On the contrary, my body was protected from the penetrating looks of the men. At first it was difficult - when I arrived at the airport my scarf slipped and I was told off. In the first few days I felt suffocated. But I quickly became used to being covered and at times I forgot to take off my scarf, even in friends' houses."

This was typical of her experiences as a thoroughly Westernised woman, who nevertheless felt curiously at home in Iran. She came to understand that the veil was not the worst of the problems faced in a country where, as she said immediately, "it is cruel to be a woman here". Even so, she says, "The Western world is happy to rely on the classic picture transmitted by the papers, or television. But to understand the country you have also to understand the sweetness of the language, drink deep of its poetry, read the classic accounts of the country by 19th-century travellers like Pierre Loti and, above all, accept Islam as a religion and not as a permanent menace. This country of 1001 marvels does not consist exclusively of mullahs and women in chadors.

"I got the impression that the atmosphere in Iran is unique in the world. It's the country of paradox. Everything seems to be forbidden, yet everything seems to be possible. There were two quite separate worlds, inside and outside the house. People didn't talk much about liberty and about religion, it was money that cropped up in every conversation. I felt at ease, because the generosity of the people of Iran has nothing in common with our individualism. Loneliness does not exist in the East.

"I met women of my own age in Isfahan and through them, as in a mirror, I sought to find the person I could have become. Would I have been the woman who thinks she is prettier in the scarf? Would I have been the one who fulfils scrupulously her religious duty? Would I be married? Would I be happy? I found something in common with every one of them. But was that not simply what all the women in the world have in common?"

She says that her focus was narrow, on the traditional city of Isfahan, and that if she had turned her lens to Tehran "the result would have been another, and perhaps more modern, image". Her choice of women was a little haphazard, but the range seemed to her typical. Of the women she photographed, many managed to fulfil their religious duty. Some lifted the veil when it wasn't compulsory; another thought she was beautiful when she wore it. Two had been in prison. Three were married to cousins, close or distant. Three had divorced and remarried.

Her last memory before flying back to Paris wasn't visual. It was a sound, of loudspeakers in the airport departure hall calling passengers to prayer. "I still did not feel that I had been living in a strange world, because it was also mine. Once I was on the plane, I was the first to remove my veil, even before take-off. The other women did not take theirs off immediately. But before we arrived in Paris they had reappeared from the toilets in Western guise, complete with make-up, perfume, jeans or short skirts. Women's bodies had reappeared, suddenly liberated for everyone to see. As for me, I still had my great big black raincoat"