Sondra Hale has walked many different paths in life. Once a high school English teacher and tennis coach in Khartoum, she's been an actor, a professional ventriloquist, a photographer and, above all, an academic triple-threat as a scholar-activist-feminist.
She's been a noteworthy presence at UCLA for more than five decades. A three-time UCLA graduate and professor in the departments of Anthropology and Women's Studies, Hale has established herself as an innovative thinker and outspoken activist on issues ranging from genocide and sexual violence in Sudan to women political prisoners in the Middle East.
Now on the verge of retiring on Dec. 1 after nearly two decades on the faculty, she will be recognized at a UCLA conference on Oct. 28. Then on Dec. 1, she will be presented with a lifetime achievement award from the Association for Middle East Women's Studies.
The "Gender, Art and Social Movements in the Middle East and Global South" conference is being presented next week by UCLA's G.E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies and is being organized by center director Professor Susan Slyomovics of the departments of Anthropology and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. The conference, which will be free and open to the public, will be held from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the California Room of the Faculty Center.
"Sondra Hale has been a longtime supporter of our center, not only as a student and faculty member, but also as chair of its Faculty Advisory Committee for several years," said Slyomovics. "This conference allows many academic units on campus to honor for her long and varied contributions to Middle East studies, African studies, women's studies and anthropology."
Scholars from several UC campuses, as well as from Harvard, Purdue, Georgetown and the University of Toronto, among others , will share their expertise on women political prisoners and feminist research in the Middle East; youth media moments on Turkish Cypriot television and in Sierra Leonean hip hop; and the reconfiguration of marriage, family and morality in Malaysia. In addition, Hale's Ph.D. students will present their research on gender dynamics.
The conference will also feature a screening of "The Dislocation of Amber," an art film that Hale, as part of a small ensemble, helped film on Sudan's Suakin Island in 1974. "It was Sudan's first art feature film," said Hale, who served as a still photographer on the project and played several roles in the film.
Hale first came to Westwood in the late 1950s as an English literature major in pursuit of a writing career. She chose UCLA because of its affordability — $50 per semester — and its reputation as one of the best schools in the country. While a student, she met and married Gerry Hale, a then-graduate student in geography. Following her graduation, the Hales embarked on a journey to Sudan, where she taught English at the secondary and post-secondary levels — finding a vocation to which she would devote the next 50 years.
Her experience in Sudan fueled an insatiable desire to play a role in changing the world. So Hale returned to UCLA for graduate studies after her husband joined the faculty in the Department of Geography (a position from which he has since retired). Hale completed her master's degree in African studies and her PhD. in anthropology.
"To this day, my African studies experience remains the most exhilarating time of my life," said Hale, who co-founded the UCLA African Activist Association in 1969 and was one of the first editors of Ufahama. The African studies journal has since become one of the longest continuously published graduate student journals in the United States.
"It was a time of awakening for African nations pulling out of colonialism, so there were a lot of revolutionary and nationalistic movements going on at that time, and we felt we were part of that uprising," said Hale. As revolutionary leaders visited UCLA, she recalled, "we got to interview them and meet them."
Following graduation, she taught at the California Institute of the Arts and at California state universities at Long Beach and Northridge, and, as a scholar, examined the Middle East and Africa with an eye toward gender, politics, social movements, nationalism, colonialism and Islamism with a particular focus on Sudan and Eritrea. Her dream to be a writer was realized through a prolific body of publication credits, with some 100 journal articles and books to her name.
Over the years, Hale earned a number of awards for excellence in teaching and social activism. Among them were the campuswide Luckman Distinguished Teaching Award, the Academic Senate Award for Contribution to a Fair and Open University Environment, the Women's Studies Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Vesta Award for Scholarship in the Arts. She is also a two-time recipient of both the UCLA Women's Studies Program Award of Excellence and the Yosano Akiko Award for Courage and Heroism from Campus and Community Women at California State University, Long Beach.
In July, Hale was honored by Sudan's leading non-governmental women's organization, Salmmah, for her contribution to the Sudanese women's movement. The award presentation coincided with the launch of the Arabic edition of her book, "Gender Politics in Sudan: Socialism, Islamism, and the State" (Westview Press, 1996). The book, the first on Sudanese gender studies to be translated from English to Arabic, is viewed as a pioneering effort to capture Sudanese women's activism.
"That award is the most meaningful one I've received because for them to give such an award to an outsider is really something," said Hale. "I know an award like this has probably never been given to a foreigner. It's so important for me to be thought of as someone who didn't just take from Sudan but someone who also tried to give back."