Medical Anthropology Quarterly

“Mixing” as an Ethnoetiology of HIV/AIDS in Malaysia's Multinational Factories

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Abstract

Minah Karan, the stigmatizing label appended to Malay factory women in the 1980s, signaled a dangerous female sexuality that risked spreading beyond the factory gates and infecting Malaysia's idea(l)s of its traditional kampung culture. This article narrates how Minah Karan, as the former antihero of development, was reconstituted in the 1990s, with the government's labeling of factories as “high-risk settings” for HIV/AIDS. This is an ethnoetiology based not on any evidential epidemiological data but on the racial and gendered “mixing” that transpires behind factory walls: a fear that the “mixing of the sexes” means ipso facto “sexual mixing” among the races. The article demonstrates how importation of the high-risk label articulates at the local level the new and contested linkages, economic, religious, and scientific, constitutive of globalization. The pragmatic nature and imperatives of this high-risk process are discerned in factory women's accounts of how they negotiate the interactional imperatives of factory work, because transnational structures of productivity violate the social boundaries that have long connoted political stability, moral integrity, ethnic community, and individual safety. The article concludes by questioning whether ethnoetiologies, especially when they concern sexual networks, become social etiologies, because this would locate ethnoetiologies as central to conventional public health praxis rather than as ethnographic exotica in the margins.

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