(Brief of the Paper)

Bong does a critical reading of ‘Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Women’ through the lens of feminism-postmodernism as a Malaysian Catholic feminist. Offering a re-thinking of the scholarly boundaries of the secular and sacred, she contends that the lesbian body is the pregnant text of feminist-postmodernist engendering. The lesbian body becomes the contentious site of foregrounding and problematizing the dialectical tension between sex and gender. ‘Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Women’, written in conjunction with the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995 is chosen for its ambivalence. On the one hand, it reflects the Church’s more contemporary and congenial stance on the perception, treatment and status of women. On the other hand, it unwittingly betrays the ascetic misogyny of Catholicism’s early theologians in the idealization of a monolithic category of Woman as a prototype for women of the world. The ‘Letter to Women’ as such, is the Church’s indefatigable defense of naturalized but also divinely sanctioned categories of sex and gender. The nemesis of this idealized Woman is embodied in the configuration of lesbians from ideological (theoretical and theologized constructs) and material (historical and cultural constructs) standpoints. To illustrate this contention, Bong uses three focal points: 1) the lesbian mother; 2) the lesbian nun; and 3) butch/femme stylization—to evince a sex/ gender distinction, its de-stabilization and its parody, respectively. In the first section, she contends that the Christian image of motherhood that is premised on biology-is-destiny is over-determined. In the second section, she show how the Church’s ‘economy of signs’ that excludes women from ordination is contested through an eroticized spirituality and spiritualized eroticism in the lesbian nun configuration. And in the final section, she argue that heterosexuality, like gender, as positioned by Judith Butler, a feminist-postmodernist theorist, is ‘performative’.

Sharon A Bong presently lectures at Monash University Malaysia. Her main research interests include women and religious studies in postcolonial contexts. She received her PhD from the Department of Religious Studies, Lancaster University, United Kingdom in 2002. She was a specialist writer with the New Straits Times Press and a Programme Officer (publications) at ARROW, the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women. She has been involved with women’s NGOs at national, regional and global levels and currently serves as the First Vice President of the Young Christian Women’s

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