Attia was born in Lucknow and went to the local La Martiniere Girls' College. She was the daughter of Sheikh Shahid Husain Kidwai and Nisar Fatima, the daughter of Syed Maqbool Hussain Alvi of Kakori.
She studied at Isabella Thoburn College from the age of fifteen and Lucknow University.
She moved to Britain in 1947 and became a broadcaster for the BBC, hosting a popular women's radio programme.
Attia's niece is the Pakistani author Muneeza Shamsie and her great-niece is author Kamila Shamsie. British television director Waris Hussein is her son and film producer Shama Habibullah is her daughter .