Calling a woman a “girl” infantilises her and implies that she’s immature, seen only as a pretty little thing.

It’s especially insulting to call aspiring female lawmakers and leaders of the country “girls.”

Yet, Gerakan legal and human rights bureau chief Baljit Singh used the word “girl” six times at the party’s recent annual general assembly, according to a transcript of his speech by Malaysiakini.

His remarks about fielding “young girls”, and “beautiful, sweet, energetic, sexy” women in elections are cringe-worthy, even if the person he was referring to – veteran Gerakan Wanita member Azmar Md Alias ― is supposedly fine with it.

It’s rather inappropriate to call your colleague “sexy.” And “sweet” is something you would use to describe a kitten.

The word “sweet” also has a distinctly unpleasant connotation when paired with the words “beautiful” and “sexy” to describe a woman. Those three words imply that a woman’s worth lies in her sex appeal, physical attractiveness, and her eagerness to please everyone around her.

How can we use such words to describe women who are running for office? A lawmaker or prime minister should be a person who’s strong, bold and tenacious. Not “sweet”, ie: lovable, adorable, and certainly not “sexy”, as if the leader of the country is someone you want to sleep with.

Calling female candidates like Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud “girls” adds insult to injury. Would we describe Khairy Jamaluddin as a “young Malay boy”?

How about fielding “handsome, charming, virile studs” in elections?

Calling women “girls”, of course, goes beyond the political arena. It’s heard everywhere.

It reinforces the perception that a woman’s value lies in her beauty and youth. She must remain forever young, a “girl” who’s demure, sweet and who does what she’s told.

We want women to be beautiful and sexy, but we don’t want them to exercise their sexual agency to decide who or how many people they want to sleep with.

We also want women to remain as “girls” so that we can dismiss their opinions and tell them that they should be seen, and not heard.

And if women get married and have children, we judge them primarily as mothers, no longer as individuals. We say people like Donald Trump shouldn’t say sexist things about women because they are mothers, daughters, and wives, as if women, on their own, deserve to be objectified.

So women are either sex objects, or a relation to a man.

Insisting on referring to women as “girls” diminishes their stature, for how can “girls” compete with men in the aggressive field of politics, or any other field of expertise? It exacerbates inequality.

Words are harmful if they’re repeated often enough until they shape society and culture. Calling women “girls” is not a compliment to their youth ― it’s a put-down.

If political parties want more women and young people to contest elections, they should treat women with respect and focus on their skills and abilities, not their sex appeal.