Muslim women will have to remove their face coverings if they want to vote in Monday's Quebec election, said the province's chief returning officer.

Marcel Blanchet announced Friday he was reversing an earlier decision that would have allowed Muslim women wearing niqabs to vote on March 26 without showing their faces.

The initial decision, reported in Montreal newspapers, sparked fierce debate in Quebec.

The chief electoral officer's headquarters were flooded with angry e-mails and phone calls, forcing Blanchet to hire two personal bodyguards and assign security officials to survey the building.

Some Quebecers threatened to show up at polling stations wearing masks, which spurred Elections Quebec to reverse its decisionso voting daycould proceed without trouble.

"It's not a good idea to make people nervous," said Denis Dion, a spokesman with Elections Quebec. "In the house of democracy, we're not used to dealing with security. What we're doing currently in Quebec is a crucial part of our social and political life."

3 leaders want decision overturned

Quebec's three mainparty leaders have requested that Blanchet overturn the decision to allow Muslim women wearing niqabs to vote without removing the full veils, whichleave only the eyes exposed.

Action Démocratique du QuébecLeader Mario Dumont applauded Blanchet's announcement, and denied waffling about the earlier announcement that would have allowed women to go to the polls without showing their faces.

On Thursday, Dumont said people should be forced to provide identification at their polling stations but stopped short of demanding they show their faces.

Parti QuébécoisLeader André Boisclair was vociferous in his opposition to allowing women to vote with their faces concealed. He said if people have to show their faces to obtain a driver's licence or health card, then they should have to show their faces when they vote.

He harped Thursday on Blanchet's reversal and claimed the PQ was instrumental in helping convince the chief electoral officer to change his mind. "I think on this specific issue, there's no room for nuance."

Liberal Leader Jean Charestdemanded thatBlanchet reverse his decision, to ensure that every voter is "properly identified."

Current election laws in Quebec allow women wearing niqabs to vote as long as they bring someone with them who can vouch for their identity. The rule applies to other voters who may not be able to expose their faces, such as burn victims.

The majority of Muslim women in Quebec don't wear niqabs, and noneare on record as asking Elections Quebec for the right to vote without showing their faces.

Concordia graduate student Afifa Naz, 25, doesn't understand why this has become an election issue. Naz, who wears the traditional full face veil, said she and most other women would have no problem showing their faces to a poll clerk.

With files from Canadian Press