The Road towards an Intercultural World

By Sheila Góis Habib, Technical Specialist at the International Relations Service (SRI)

It has been almost two months since I have joined the International Relations Service (SRI) at INESC TEC, yet I could not be happier with the challenge that has been proposed to me: to support the development of the International Cooperation Area of the International Relations Service.

If you do not know, the SRI can help you with anything you might need – from finding opportunities for you to undertake a research exchange abroad, to facilitating meetings with other institutions to exchange best practices – so don’t hesitate to send us a ticket!

Since starting at INESC TEC, I have tracked the institution’s portfolio of international agreements and recorded a podcast episode about proton therapy (an emerging cancer therapy). I am currently coordinating a unique opportunity for INESC TEC’s researchers to collaborate with Japan’s National Institute of Informatics and in the process of creating a very exciting programme for INESC TEC.

A small curiosity: INESC TEC has celebrated international agreements with institutions in all continents, except Australia (and Antarctica of course!).

Although my journey at INESC TEC has just begun, I’m very excited to support the Board of Directors, as well as my team, in the conceptualisation, implementation and monitoring of INESC TEC’s internationalisation strategy. In fact, I feel that this challenge fits me like a glove. I have been living abroad for a big part of my life – the UK, Belgium, Switzerland and Angola. Coming back to Portugal and, most of all, to an institution like INESC TEC, couldn’t feel more right. I have studied human rights law, but my professional experience is predominantly international and in the field of international relations.

I have had the pleasure of working in the Consulate General of Portugal in Luanda, and at the oldest women’s peace organisation in the world (WILPF) amongst other places. These experiences have shaped the person I am today. In fact, I found the feminist movement while living abroad.

For instance, I have had the unique opportunity to meet and speak with some of the women that make up the Syrian Women’s Political Movement. The Syrian Women’s Political Movement was established in 2017 by Syrian women who demand meaningful representation in the Syrian political process and who seek to establish sustainable peace and an inclusive and free democracy in Syria. I have listened, first hand, to their experiences and outlooks and their aim to rethink the Syrian political process from feminist and gender perspectives, and to achieve a state based on the rule of law that affords equal rights for women and men without discrimination. Yet, unfortunately, they are still struggling to find the answers/solutions for how to get Syrian women to sit at the negotiation tables – aka their voices are still not being heard.

I have also had the chance to speak with Members of the European Parliament, who were concerned with the serious human rights violations against the Muslim Uighur population happening in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, yet frustrated with the little power they had to do something – not only because China kept refusing to allow access to Xinjiang for independent observers, but also because the European Union is/was diplomatically unwilling/unable to cut relations with or impose sanctions on China.

These examples are only two of too many that block the way for a more inclusive and equitable world. We still have a long way to go for the human rights of everyone to be respected. That is why cross-culture awareness and understanding is important.

I strongly believe that part of the reason why our world is “filled” with islamophobia, racism, gypsyphobia, homophobia, transphobia, and other types of discrimination, is due to the lack of cross-culture awareness and acceptance of what is considered/seen as “different”. The other reason is that we refuse to listen to people. This is why it is essential to educate people from a young age, for inclusion and acceptance of a multicultural society as a way to fight against various forms of discrimination and intolerance. Like my friend Tex Silva says, re-education at older ages, where intolerant beliefs are already deeply rooted, is very difficult, hence the importance of education for citizenship. The Portuguese saying “education comes from home” is a dangerous tool used for maintaining intolerance due to the intergenerational transfer of beliefs. Therefore, I am a strong supporter of having citizenship as a mandatory subject in schools, as a way to promote equality and interculturality.

I also believe that governments should be more proactive towards including all people in society, with broader initiatives, with a system of education and workspaces inclusive of all cultures, religions, genders, sexual orientations, races, ethnic origins, backgrounds and the list goes on. There have been attempts (some unfortunately successful) to impede women who use facial coverings like the hijab or the burqa from accessing school or work, or girls who wish to go to school, but cannot afford to buy menstrual health products. This is not acceptable and it is the reason why we need our society to be more inclusive.

Diversity is something we ought to celebrate – because people have different backgrounds and consequently different opinions, different ways of thinking and different solutions. Together we are better.

If you want to improve your cross-cultural awareness, be curious – there is always space to learn something new. Aim to interact with people from different cultures and backgrounds than your own, spend time with them and, most importantly, ask lots of questions and read books on topics that you do not know anything about!

In our globalised and interconnected world, cross-cultural education is part of the solution towards including people in society and making them feel welcome in any part of the world.

It’s time we live in an equal society.

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